The Three-Legged Stool of Competency Frameworks

April 11, 2013 by

three-legged-stoolI don’t know how I missed it, but in February New Hampshire released competencies that will be used as the infrastructure upon which they will out their balanced assessment systems. Remember that, at first, New Hampshire left the decision about competency frameworks for districts to decide. But after a couple of years of local efforts it was clear that with the Common Core it made sense to have a set of default ELA and math competencies – there are 9 for English and 19 for math.  These competencies are overarching across levels to help students and teachers to provide purpose and meaning as students build their skills on specific measurable learning targets such as the standards outlined in the Common Core.

So this is a good opportunity to take a moment to think about what competencies are and why they are important.

What is a Competency?  A competency is a statement of the knowledge, skills and/or behaviors students must master in a specific content or performance area. They explicitly explain the expectation for what a learner should be able to know and do.  A competency statement represents essential, enduring, transferable concepts that are at the upper end of knowledge taxonomies such as Webb’s strategic thinking or Blooms’ analyze, evaluate and create.

A competency can then be broken down to include the specific learning targets that are needed to demonstrate the competency.  Learning targets (or objectives) may include the full range of knowledge levels, including remember and understand. The way New Hampshire has designed their competencies, the learning targets are going to be based on where students are in their learning progression…i.e.grade (or level) specific. Thus, vocabulary acquisition and use, a component of NH’s eighth ELA competency on speaking will vary for a 2nd grader to a 10th grader.  This means the calibration or tuning within and across districts according to grades or levels is critically important to ensure rigor and equity.

Competencies represent content-specific concepts and skills; however, they can be organized in a manner to encourage cross-disciplinary learning, teaching, and assessment. Project-and problem-based learning will include sets of interdisciplinary competencies.

What Makes a Strong Competency Statement?

Based on interviews with practitioners, we came up with the following characteristic in The Art and Science of Designing Competencies:

•    Describes knowledge and skills that can be applied to novel, complex situations.
•    Skills will be valuable ten years from now even if the content knowledge has changed.
•    Learning objectives have clear performance criteria so students can identify their performance level(s) and what they need to do to improve.
•    Learning objectives are accompanied by effective rubrics that help students understand themselves as learners.
•    The competency and the learning objectives allow for personalization and opportunities for deeper learning.

Below is an example of three statements.  Which one is an effective competency and why?

•    Students will make informative presentations.

•    Students will understand that different audiences require different communication styles and strategies.

•    I can use a wide range of strategies to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences to convey a variety of purposes.

The “I can” statement is one way of creating user-friendly language that helps students to own their education. In the future we need to include user-friendliness or empowering to students in that initial list of characteristics.

What Happens if a Competency Statement Isn’t Well-Designed?

If a competency statement isn’t well designed several issues may develop:

1)    Students may not fully understand what is expected or what they need to do to show evidence of learning.
2)    The misalignment between the competency statement and the assessments may result in the teacher assessing something the student didn’t expect to be assessed upon.
3)    The level of knowledge may remain at a low level and not offer higher levels of rigor and deeper levels of learning.

There are always a lot of questions about what is a competency and how it compares to standards. It’s important to get the competency statements right so that they are really driving towards deeper learning. However, it’s equally important to know what the knowledge and standards are that students need to fully demonstrate the competency and to establish processes for tuning and calibration.

So think of it as the three-legged stool of competency frameworks –
1)    competency frameworks,
2)    standards that students will need to know to demonstrate competencies; and,
3)    educators collaborating to calibrate the learning progression from entry to kindergarten to graduation to the world of college and careers.

We will tip over ourselves if all three aren’t in place.

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