Assessment of Learning with a Competency-Based System: How to Start

This past spring, two members of my administrative team at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire had the opportunity to present our school’s competency-based grading and reporting system to admissions representatives from each of t

he New Hampshire Colleges and Universities. A very interesting conversation unfolded when the team passed out two competency-based report cards from two students at our school. Both students had earned a final grade of an “80” in their Forensic Science class, but both had very different grades in each of their competencies for that particular course. One had an “exceeding” grade of 95 for the crime scene management competency (students will demonstrate the ability to use and understand how observation is used in order to collect and gather evidence in scene investigation). The other student had an “inconsistent progress” grade of a 75 for the same skill. This evidence suggests that one student perhaps had a more complete understanding of the scientific inquiry process that goes into a forensics investigation, while the other still had work to do to bring that skill to competency.


The ability to be able to “dig deeper” into what a final grade represents and how it can be used to report learning not only intrigued the admissions officers, but it generated an entire discussion around what else a competency-based grading and reporting system could do for students. Indeed, this model should be the way of the future for all high schools. Our school made the leap from a traditional to a competency-based model over a period of about three years, and I challenge you to explore how you might make the same leap at your school.


Sanborn Regional High School has been acknowledged by Bramonte and Colby (2012) as a leader in a movement from traditional to competency-based grading for all courses in the State of New Hampshire. A “competency” is the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s). At Sanborn, all courses use a competency-based grading system. By this, it is meant that assignments celebrex 100mg are linked back to the competencies that they are designed to assess and student performance is reported in a way that tracks student mastery of the competencies that have been identified for each course. This shift in focus allows the school to use report cards and transcripts to more accurately report what it is a student knows and is able to do.


Where to Start: Common Grading Expectations


To make this work in a school with 725 students and 60 teachers, all teachers adhere to a common set of grading expectations that are derived from the works of educational researchers including Marzano, O’Connor, Reeves, Stiggins, and Wormeli. The highlights of these grading practices are below:


Summative verses Formative Assignments: O’Connor (2009) defines a summative assessment as “a comprehensive measure of a student’s ability to demonstrate the concepts, skills, and knowledge embedded within a course competency. It is an assessment of learning and it is heavily weighted in the grading system” At Sanborn, our teachers link summative assignments to the course competencies that the assignment is assessing.

In contrast, O’Connor (2009) defines a formative assessment as “an assessment for learning and can broadly be described as a “snapshot” or a “dipstick” measure that captures a student’s progress through the learning process. It explains to what extent a student is learning a concept, skill, or knowledge set. In a sense, a formative assessment is practice and is, therefore, not heavily weighted in the grading system.” At Sanborn Regional High School, summative assignments must account for at least 90% of a final course grade.


Rolling Grades: At Sanborn, we use the expression “rolling grade” to highlight the fact that we have eliminated the need for quarter and semester grades. Our grading term starts on the first day of class, and it ends on the last day. We do not make use of averaging by quarters or trimesters to compute a student’s final course grade. Instead, our students know that their grade will be calculated based on all of their work for the entire course.


Reassessment: Reassessment is an important part of any competency-based grading system. Students learn at different rates, and they need multiple chances to demonstrate mastery of a competency or skill. Most state-level department of motor vehicle agencies that I know of let new drivers reassess their driving test until they have reached a proficient level. Most state-level department of education offices allow future teachers to reassess a licensure test until they have reached mastery. Why should a high school assessment be any different? At Sanborn, any student who does not obtain an 80% or higher on a summative assessment has the option to reassess, provided they complete a reassessment plan with their teacher which may include a deadline for completion of the reassessment as well as the completion of several formative assessments at a proficient level prior to taking a reassessment.


The Elimination of the “Zero”: Wormeli (2006) argues that despite the long-standing assumption of American school teachers that a zero can motivate a student to work harder, the truth is that it does not. Rather, a zero skews a student’s final grade in such a way that it no longer accurately represents what a student knows and is able to do. Giving a student a zero is akin to giving them the option to fail. In the Sanborn model, failure is not an option for any student. Teachers will do whatever it takes to get student’s to complete an assignment.

We encourage our teachers to use the following checklist when dealing with a student who refuses to complete an assignment. These strategies are listed in the order that they should be attempted until the student produces the work:


  1. The student and teacher must have a face to face meeting about the late/missing generic cialis in india work to clarify the assignment;
  2. The student and teacher must agree to an extension of a due date;
  3. An agreed upon time must be established to allow the student to complete the assignment in the classroom;
  4. The teacher must make contact with a parent or guardian;
  5. If appropriate, the teacher must provide an alternative assessment;
  6. The teacher must contact the appropriate case manager or counselor to make them aware of the situation;
  7. The teacher must give the student a grade of a incomplete either for the assignment or the course due to “Insufficient Work Shown” (IWS) until the student completes the assignment.


When this model was first implemented, my teachers were skeptical and concerned that this practice may make it difficult, if not impossible to keep track of make-up work and could drag out the grading deadlines indefinitely. While this may be true to some extent in the short term, my teachers quickly realized that the more they “hounded” students early on in a course, the less likely students were to give them issues later in a course. Our teachers continually impress upon students the idea that they cannot give them a grade on their learning if they have no proof that learning has taken place.


Course Credit: At Sanborn Regional High School, a passing grade for a course is still a 65% (One of our next hurtles to address as a school community is moving this to something higher, possibly as high as an 80%). Credit is awarded for a course if a student meets both of the following two conditions:


  1. The student earns a grade of 65 or higher for each course competency as determined by the final report card for the course; and
  2. The student earns an overall final course grade of a 65 or higher


In the cialis in mexico event that one (or both) of these conditions are not met, the student must complete competency or credit recovery to bring the student up to mastery. Competency and credit recovery programs at Sanborn are organized as course-specific, skill-based learning opportunities for students who Cost levitra have previously been unsuccessful in mastering content/skills required to receive course credit. These opportunities can include things like:


  • Completion of an online course or competency module at a proficient level
  • Completion of a teacher-directed project or recovery plan at a proficient level. The plan may include reassessments of key summative assignments or the completion of an alternative project
  • Completion of an appropriate extended learning opportunity that is connected with the skill or competency that must be recovered



Sanborn Regional High School had a very successful 2011-2012 school year in which it was recognized at local, state, and national levels for its work in school redesign for the twenty-first century. The school strives to become one of the premiere high schools in the State of New Hampshire and beyond and is committed to ensuring that its competency-based grading and reporting system helps it realize its vision for all students of Learning for All, Whatever it Takes. For more information on our school, visit us online at

Originally published at




Bramonte, F. and Colby, R. (2012). Off the Clock: Moving From Time to Competency. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin


O’Connor, K and Stiggins, R. (2009). How to Grade for Learning, K-12, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin


Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.



  1. Nathan Mielke (@ndmielke) said:

    Excellent post. What I’m trying to wrap my head around how to create competency-based learning opportunities for teachers. Likely it rotates around some sort of LMS. I believe as pay schedules change and we stop looking at credits and degrees as compensated learning milestones, there needs to be a robust way to track and reward educator growth. I feel this is one route to that.

    December 6, 2012
  2. Jon Tanner said:

    Our high school is in the process of doing similar work. We have eliminated zeroes and are using summative assessment to assign a grade. We would like to use rubrics and a 4 or 5 point proficiency scale to assessment competency, instead of percentage grading, but we are having a hard time figuring out a) how to express these to parents, who still want to know what “grade” their child has, and b) how to interface with colleges and universities which want a traditional GPA.
    I was wondering if you have explored the idea of moving to a proficiency scale, and if so, what led you to continue using percentages? Or, do you think you will eventually use a scale instead of percentages? How will you overcome these issues? Thanks for any information you can provide.

    December 10, 2012
  3. Brian Stack said:

    Hi Jon,

    It is interesting that you raise this question. He have indeed started to move in the direction of proficiency scales — in fact this year our report card now uses these rubric scales to report out mastery of course competencies. In the past we have used the 100 point scale average for this.

    I think that when thinking about how to start with competency-based grading, we believed that maintaining the 100 point scale for a short period of time was a way to “ease” our parents, students, and in some cases faculty members into the new philosophy. It also gave us time to build quality performance assessments to measure mastery of these competencies, which is where we are right now. As that process advances, the natural shift seems to be to 4 or 5 point proficiency scale systems.

    Hope this helps!


    December 10, 2012
  4. scott stanton said:

    As our school makes the change to competency-based grading we are looking for a model on how to implement competency-based grading in the the ARTS, more specifically, instrumental music. An established model with specific guidelines that we can follow would be great. Do you have such a document?

    December 11, 2012

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