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Standards and Contracts and Competencies, oh my!
A review of some common forms of alternative assessment
There is a wide variety in alternative assessment methods, and even more names for them. You might have heard some of these names and wondered, “What is that?” In today’s post, I’m going to describe some of these approaches to assessment that aren’t standards-based grading, specifications grading, or things along those lines. I’ll take a look at their common features and differences with the forms of assessment that we more often discuss on this blog.
Standards-based grading in K-12 education
OK, I know that I just said I wasn’t going to talk about standards-based grading. Hear me out: In the past several decades, SBG has expanded from K-12 schools into higher education. But, the K-12 approach to SBG doesn’t always agree with higher education approaches, and we aren’t always speaking the same language. It’s helpful to know about these differences.
To talk about these differences, I’ll refer to this article, co-authored by three of the biggest names in K-12 SBG literature:
Guskey, T. R., Townsley, M., & Buckmiller, T. M. (2020). The Impact of Standards-Based Learning: Tracking High School Students’ Transition to the University. NASSP Bulletin, 104(4), 257-269.
One thing to notice right away is the title: Standards-Based Learning. The authors divide assessment strategies more finely than we usually do in higher education: Following the authors, Standards-Based Grading is focused on the process of grading assignments. This is done by assigning progress to standards, as opposed to giving one overall grade or using points with partial credit. Standards-Based Learning is what you have when you’ve aligned your classroom practice with standards as well. So, for example, if you divide units up by standard and clearly indicate which standard you’re learning about at any given point, that’s part of a standards-based classroom practice that isn’t grading. There’s yet another variation, Standards-Based Reporting, in which student progress is reported entirely in terms of standards, rather than one overall letter grade or GPA.
This leads to some things that might seem surprising. For example, reassessments fall under Standards-Based Learning. Even though reassessments may affect a final grade, they aren’t directly part of the grading — they’re an extra feature of how an instructor might decide to run their class. On the other hand, reassessments are a critical part of what we usually call Standards-Based Grading in higher education.
Another key difference in the K-12 definition of SBG is that grades are based only on content knowledge, not on “noncognitive factors” such as attendance, participation, completion, or behavior. Those factors, if recorded at all, are reported separately from a student’s grade (e.g. Academic grade: B+; participation grade: Not satisfactory). The reason is simple: The goal of SBG is to report student content knowledge. While noncognitive factors may encourage learning, they do not represent a student’s actual understanding.
This is not a distinction that’s usually made in SBG as used in higher education, and in fact many SBG implementations include attendance, completion, and “engagement” as requirements.
Overall, SBG is very similar between K-12 and higher education. However, differences in context lead to different focuses in implementation. Plus, as the authors point out, not all K-12 SBG implementations have “high fidelity” — meaning that some of the distinctions I’ve described might not even be present in any given class.
“Competency-Based Learning” is a term I’ve heard proposed more than once as an umbrella term for standards-based grading, specifications grading, mastery-based testing, etc.
It turns out that the term is already taken, more or less. Competency-Based Education is big enough to have a journal all its own, including an article that I’ll lean on heavily in this post:
Gervais, J. (2016). The operational definition of competency‐based education. The Journal of Competency‐Based Education, 1(2), 98-106. (Web link)
Gervais’s definition of CBE is: “… an outcome-based approach to education that incorporates modes of instructional delivery and assessment efforts designed to evaluate mastery of learning by students through their demonstration of the knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, and behaviors required for the degree sought.”
In some ways, this is similar to SBG (or SBL), in that CBE programs typically have clear learning objectives, and students are asked to demonstrate their progress on each of those objectives. That’s the “competency” part: To succeed in a CBE program, students must show competency in all of the key objectives.1
But the key difference from SBG is right there in the last few words of the definition: for the degree sought. CBE is a method of designing an entire degree program. It operates at a very different scale than SBG typically does in higher-education, where SBG is applied one class at a time.
Whenever you’ve seen an advertisement for a degree program that promises “credit for your real-world experience”, that program probably used CBE. A key feature of CBE is that students can demonstrate competency through any relevant means, including past work experience.
Following from this difference in scale, objectives in a CBE program are typically broad “competencies”. Competencies may be so broad as to cover all topics in a course, or even topics that weave through several courses. Gervais describes them as “levels of performance a student is expected to master across the curriculum”.
One of the biggest examples of CBE that fits this description is Western Governors University, an all-online private university that uses CBE throughout all of its programs.
Western Governors’ implementation of CBE is often held up as a prototypical example, and shows how CBE programs can look very different from traditional degree programs. WGU’s programs are self-paced with a highly individualized curriculum, structured using online delivery tools. There may be no traditional classes nor traditional credit hours. Rather, instructors construct and support modules that students can work on at their own pace. Assessment is based entirely on demonstrating competency with the broad program goals, and assessments can be flexible and adapted to each student’s needs — a student may even “test out” by demonstrating competency based on previous experience. Other than final assessments used to determine competency, assessments are mostly formative and used to determine which modules or competencies students need to focus on.
There are many other variations on CBE, each with a greater or lesser connection to SBG. Here’s a very helpful blog post by one of the leaders in K-12 SBG that helpfully connects SBG and Competency-Based Education as it is used in K-12 schools:
K-12 CBE programs appear to use finer-grained objectives, and are often organized in a more traditional course structure. This could easily fade right into SBG!
Contract grading and Labor grading
Now on to something that is used in individual higher education classes.
In contract grading, each student signs a contract with the instructor that specifies what the student must do to earn a specific grade.
Much of my discussion here is based on this excellent, and very challenging, book:
Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. WAC Clearinghouse. (Web link)
Other examples appear in “Ungrading” (discussed below). As we’ve already seen, many of these alternative assessment methods blur and merge.
Contract grading can be very similar to specifications grading. In fact, some contracts seem nearly identical to “bundles” in Specifications grading. Many contracts, as well as bundles, list a collection of specific assignments that a student must satisfactorily complete in order to earn a specific grade. Students can choose their desired grade, which selects a list of assignments they must complete. In this case, the main difference is the formatting and presentation of those bundles into the style of a contract.
However, that’s not the essence of contract grading. A key feature that distinguishes contract grading is that the contracts can be negotiated. Either the entire class, or possibly each student separately, can negotiate and sign their own contracts. These might be negotiated through a whole-class discussion, individual meetings with the instructor, guided reflections, or other processes. The goal is to de-center the instructor’s perceived authority in assigning grades and give students more power to find and act on their own goals.
Contract grading seems to be used most often in writing classes. The authors of the delightful article “So Your Instructor is Using Contract Grading…” point out that contracts tend to focus more on behaviors than outcomes (e.g. a paper that demonstrates proficiency in a certain way): “Contracts reward you for behaving like a professional writer: taking an active role in peer reviews, participating in discussions about writing, and taking steps like freewriting and revising that lead to successful drafts.”
Labor grading is a natural extension — essentially a special type of contract grading — in which the contracts focus entirely on the amount of work a student does. There is “no attention to quality of writing turned in (on the part of the teacher)”, but a great deal of attention focused on putting in the time and effort to develop writing skills and behaving like a writer. In other words, the “satisfactory completion” required in Specifications grading becomes simply “the student completed the work” — but while doing so, they have learned some of the skills and behaviors of a professional. As Inoue points out, this is a way to remove the arbitrary yet still subjective authority of an instructor’s writing standards, and replace it with a genuine focus on developing as a learner and professional.
One of the biggest buzzwords in recent years is Ungrading. This book of essays by individual authors is an excellent starting point:
Blum, S. D., & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.
Ungrading is the practice of wholly removing grades from regular classroom assignments. While most schools (but not all!) require instructors to assign final grades in each course, ungraded courses remove grades from intermediate assignments. The goal is to remove the negative incentives of summative grades and give students more freedom to make mistakes, learn, and grow.
Ungrading (the book) reveals something interesting, which is the degree to which ungrading (the practice) blurs with other alternative assessment methods discussed in this post. The book includes readily recognizable examples of standards-based grading, specifications grading, contract grading, and labor grading.
The common feature of all of these approaches to ungrading is a strong focus on formative feedback and opportunities to revise, rather than summative grades — far stronger than a typical SBG implementation (for example) might have.
Many forms of ungrading ask students to argue in favor of a specific course grade, providing evidence via a final portfolio. Instructors might supply narrative descriptions of what each grade should involve (e.g. “To earn an A, you should include essays that show consistently excellent work…”) or negotiate these descriptions with students, in the style of contract grading.
Some instructors go much farther, giving students full control of their grade. Students are asked to propose a final grade, usually with some form of justification or reasoning — but in the end, the instructor assigns exactly the grade that the student proposes.
A common feature of instructors who have moved towards ungrading is a deep dissatisfaction with grades and the incentives that they provide. By removing grades (as much as possible) these instructors hope to help students stop “playing the game” of grades and give them room to focus on learning.
There’s a wide variety of alternative assessment practice out there, and this article only covers a few of them. In researching these practices, I’ve learned a lot myself. Perhaps some of these ideas and citations will push you in a new direction. Many of these practices blur and overlap. You might begin with standards-based grading, but add in ideas from ungrading or contract grading, creating a hybrid system that’s unique to you.
You’ve probably said “wait, what??” at least once while reading these descriptions. I hope that you won’t dismiss any of these ideas out-of-hand. Not only have these all been implemented successfully by many instructors, they are grounded in genuine care for students and their success. Each approach originates in some particular context or discipline: Labor grading originates in Writing; SBG is often said to work best in courses with clearly separated topics; many of these require some degree of freedom and flexibility to alter your course structures. Nonetheless, if something resonates with your own philosophy of teaching and learning, you can likely make it work in your classes.
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Purely a personal opinion, but I’m not a fan of the word “competency”. If a student hasn’t demonstrated competency, then what word might they think is being used to describe them?