Where Do End-of-Course Exams Fit In?

July 19, 2012 by

Ready for the exam

Anyone deep in competency education is probably getting a lot of calls from around the country asking for briefings, and advice about how to move forward. So we are going to start a new category of posts aimed at making sense of competency education. We’ll just call it Understanding Competency Education, and it is designed for people who are just diving into the topic. Quite honestly, it is probably for all of us as our understanding deepens.


The first topic is something we are asked about frequently: What is the relationship between competency education and “end-of-course” exams? Does using an end-of-course exam mean that you have implemented competency education? Do you have to use end-of-course exams in a competency education system?

Let’s take this step by step. We are all working together to sharpen our thinking, so please jump in if you think I don’t have this quite right.

System of Assessments: Competency education considers assessment to be part of the learning process. The assessments, formative and summative alike, need to be designed around the specific learning objectives that the students are focused on. Most important for ensuring that students are progressing and “pacing” is for teachers and students to use the formative assessment process to guide student learning. Thus, an end-of-course exam could be part of the system of assessments but certainly not the only one.

Demonstration of Mastery: The design of the end-of–course exam makes a difference. Competencies are designed so that students demonstrate mastery based on the higher levels of Depth of Knowledge or Bloom’s Taxonomy. For an end-of-course exam to be valuable in a competency-based system, it needs to be designed to assess mastery. An end-of-course exam could be a bubble test and/or it could focus on lower-level skills without the capacity to be used to assess mastery. So perhaps we should think about language to differentiate – course-mastery exams and end-of-course exams. Certainly an end-of-course exam might be a performance-based assessment contributing to students’ portfolios.

Learning Progressions: Competency education assumes that students are building skills (mastering learning objectives) throughout a course. So “grading” means that we are monitoring student progress in mastering skills and content. If an end-of-course exam is used, students would still need the opportunity to get instructional help if they didn’t “pass” or demonstrate proficiency on the exam. The idea that there would be a one-time end-of-course exam with a letter grade is anathema to competency education. Remember:  “…failure or poor performance may be part of the student’s learning curve, but it is not an outcome.”

Quality Control: End-of-course exams, such as AP exams, certainly could be a component of a quality control system.  We have been using an awkward, top-down, NCLB-driven accountability system to address quality issues in the education system.  CompeWe are always going to have to be vigilant in ensuring that: 1) consistency in the understanding across states, districts, schools and classrooms about what is proficiency (thank goodness for the Common core) and, 2)  we avoid being entrapped in the cultural demand for sorting students by differentiating what proficiency means.

In summary, an end-of-course exam is useful in competency education if 1) it is one of many assessments, designed specifically around the competencies and learning objectives; 2) it allows students to demonstrate the application of knowledge, and 3) students who are not yet proficient have opportunities to get instructional help and multiple chances to demonstrate mastery.

Please be sure to comment, to further clarify, and even to disagree if you don’t think these explanations are accurate. It’s most important that we build understanding and not confusion! If we get a lot of comments, I’ll rewrite this post to better reflect your expertise!

About the Author

Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.




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  1. Comment by Susan Patrick 6:15 pm, July 19, 2012

    These are really important points. I am also getting questions about competency education, performance-based learning and end-of-course exams.

    On competency education versus end-of-course exams. . . I think about it this way – as there are many terms to describe competency education, performance-based learning, mastery-based learning, proficiency-based pathways, outcomes-based education, standards-based education (and more) . . . interchangeably (we use competency because the term appears in Federal programs, such as Race-to-the-Top).

    Now, for end-of-course exams. They are one way to validate learning as a student completes a set of learning progressions packed into a full course. End-of course exams are considered one of many “moderating assessments” (as they say in European nations) that the competency education along the trajectory of the clear, explicit learning objectives.

    Chris – the one item I’d comment on specifically in your post is we need to be talking about it as “Systems of Assessments” – where both systems and assessments are plural. Why? – because in competency education, it requires multiple measures at multiple times. We need to push the concept of “Systems of Assessments” that include: 1) entry assessments – these can be adaptive assessments to map out student learning levels, gaps and proficiency on a continuum, 2) formative assessments and embedded assessments – provide data to student and instructors as they move along, 3) performance-based assessments – projects and demonstrations of student mastery for each learning objective (one key area the U.S. needs to invest in – and heavily used in highest performing countries around the world), 4) summative assessments – these can include end of course exams (to validate learning across a trajectory for a course) or summative assessments; it is very important for competency education for the summative or end of course exams to be offered throughout the year (testing windows have to be when a student is ready for assessment, not on an adult’s 2-week end of year window).

    On learning progressions, I think these have more to do with using the standards as a broad framework of competencies, and then allowing for pathways through learning progressions. End of course exams could measure learning progressions — as long as there was adequate alignment. I think the one area I’d push back on is that learning progressions “defining learning objectives and skills to master”, proficiency-based grading strategies for “mastery” and end of course assessments “validating mastery” are three separate and distinct topics (though they have inter-related impacts).

    Quality control – end-of-course exams do play a critical role in quality control . . . Fostering and protecting high quality learning is key — and will need to include multiple forms of data (including performance-based assessments) from the student level up . . . and systems of assessments will help us rethink quality and accountability.

    Hopefully, this helps clarify the differences in competency education and end-of-course exams.

  2. Comment by Chris Sturgis 6:32 pm, July 22, 2012

    Susan — Very helpful. We tend to only talk about two kinds of assessments, formative and summative. It was helpful to see you break this down into four types: entry, formative, performance and summative. My guess is that there is always some overlap (in a performance assessment of a learning objective, both teacher and student may get feedback that allows them to gain insights into their own learning. No matter — the breakdown into four types of assessments is helpful.

    I’m still thinking we need work on clarifying learning progressions. Paul highlighted this in a conference call last week: There is the learning progression that adults want to see students follow (eg. Common Core). There is an inherent student learning progression, the natural path that students take in their learning (with schooling one factor). And in reading your comments, makes me think of a third, which is the indidivudal learning progressions that students take in school. Again, language to help us think about this more clearly might be helpful: Structured, Organic, Personalized.

    In thinking about how to make sense of these different concepts as they develop and/or are applied to competency education, I’m increasingly wanting a few clear design criteria to help make sense of this.

    In this conversation I think they are:

    Enhance student learning and pace (all kids will struggling at some point, but we need to make sure that the elements of competency education is designed to keep students on pace).

    Quality control (there are several aspects of this and would be best to spell out at some point)

    Transparency — Our current accountabiliy system is a combination of quality control and transparency. Transparency is important for school choice, for district management, and for ensuring equity (an element of quality control).

    Anyway, thanks for the comments. Made me start thinking differently on a couple of these topics.

  3. Comment by Paul Leather 10:47 am, July 23, 2012

    Susan and Chris – I am glad to see this discussion occurring. Competency education will live or die based on how close it connects to emerging research on learning progressions, whether we are engaged in digital systems, or not. Gerrita Postlewaite’s work with Fritz Mosher and his happy band of researchers at CPRE, needs greater exposure, greater support. It would also be good to engage with Scott Marion and the rest of the crew at the Center of Assessment to update their writings on “systems of assessment.” Defining these systems, as you have started to do here, more by ways and purposes, and less by when the assessments are given, will be critical to moving forward. Thanks for starting to air out these critical issues! Paul

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