How Competency Based Education Will Drive Improvements in Assessment

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With a simple change of routine, my third-grade teacher transformed my understanding of school. Each day, Miss Meloche listed the required work on the blackboard. The pace, sequence, and method for getting through these activities was up to us. And when we were done: free time! (Well, not completely free. But burrowing into a book of my choice was heaven for a bookworm like me.) My teacher was a constant presence, helping the kids who needed it and making sure we were all staying on track. I remember her talking with each of us individually, just about every day.

Words cannot convey my disappointment upon starting fourth grade. Once more, seat time and lockstep progression became the norm, serving to frustrate and disengage 75% of the students at any one time.

My third-grade class was a limited experiment in Competency Based Education (CBE), but some basic dynamics were there. To the extent that traditional metrics for being a “good student” (seat time, class participation, past performance) became irrelevant, the need for accurate assessment became more pressing. We still had worksheets, but those daily conversations were Miss Meloche’s finely honed formative assessment.

A teacher with 25 students can find ways to stay informed about each student’s progress and to intervene when necessary. But if we want to reach more students, we need to find solutions that will work with 200, or 2000.

Competency requires a thorough mastery of essential information and skills and the ability to use these to achieve one’s aims. How is this to be measured?

On first blush, conventional tests with machine-graded multiple-choice questions might seem appropriate.  After all, CBE is often associated with narrowly defined vocational knowledge and skills, so surely a bank of test items covering the basics should be appropriate. Except that it’s not, as every driver knows: you can pass the written exam, but you won’t get your license if you fail your road test.

Furthermore, this characterization of vocational education is short sighted. There are many people for whom an improved skill set and necessary credentials are the pathway to employability, a promotion, financial solvency.  But trainingbecomes education when we challenge people to think, when we prepare them to solve new problems and work with others to implement them. If we truly want to prepare students for employment in the twenty-first century, these competencies must be included.

The utility of CBE for vocational education is just one lens. CBE can also be a paradigm shift that sidesteps the hurdles that narrow academic specialization can place in the way of meaningful contribution. Competency can be understood as the full recognition of the complexity of the problems we face, the interdependencies of various approaches, and the connectedness of theory and practice.

In either case, these competencies are not easily assessed with multiple-choice tests. CBE is focused on what you can do, not how many facts you know.

There are alternatives. Both performance tasks and constructed response assessment can challenge students to analyze situations, recall information, apply it to new problems, and explain their reasoning. The difficulty here is scale. These assessments tend to be highly complex and require significant time on the part of well-trained human assessors.

So, this is the pressure point: the increased need for accurate, anytime assessment of complex thinking and interdependent skills, without a huge increase in cost. If CBE is to match its promise, we need more efficient ways of delivering high-quality formative and summative assessment.

Technology can certainly offer some help. Any assessment workflow is composed of incremental steps and substeps, many of which are amenable to automation, e.g. batch delivering assessable items to an appropriate assessor, tagging evaluations so they contribute to personalization, or collating results across days and weeks to build up a detailed portrait of a learner. E-Portfolios and Learning Management Systems focused on CBE are developing features in this area, but they are still in their infancy.

Another approach is to offload some of the assessment itself it to technology. There is no reason that machine-grading must be limited to multiple-choice and similarly binary formats. We live in a world where our free social tools can recognize faces and Artificial Intelligence can beat people at the games of chess, Jeopardy–and now Go. Is it too much to expect that technology could provide formative assessment and coach students while they practice making an argument, developing a business plan, or diagnosing a patient?

Cognii is exploring the possibilities in this area. We’ve been working with schools and other CBE-based organizations that use our AI-powered assessment tools to provide accurate evaluations of the ideas in students’ written answers, give students immediate feedback, and offer personalized tutoring. In each case, it’s the dual commitment to quality and access that is driving the innovation.

Much as Miss Meloche did for me, so many years ago, new approaches to CBE are transforming our understanding of what education can and should be. There will be ripple effects across the face of education, and if we’re lucky, higher expectations and better options for assessment and feedback will be among them.

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