Offering Retakes is Not Competency Based Learning

One of my colleagues asked a question that inspired this post. Based on what she is seeing as her own school makes the shift, her question was, “Is having a student take the same test over and over again until they pass it, really proficiency based learning”? In Vermont we use the term proficiency which is interchangeable with competency. Competency based instruction is about holding learners accountable for their learning. Retakes are usually about grades but that’s another conversation altogether. Offering retakes for particular material may make sense in some situations where content is the focus of the learning. Brian Stack quotes Rick Wormeli and Ken O’Conner regarding retakes in the real world in this article about his own shift. Stack points out that other industries that require certification allow retakes. But again, this is related to specific content or information. Competency based teaching and learning does require that the learner becomes competent in agreed upon skills and content. Relying on retakes as the only intervention could be an easy pitfall and simplifies the shift in a dangerous way. Retakes are not the only way to allow learners the time they need to become proficient.

Learning targets

If a stranger walked into your classroom and asked a child about the learning target and it wasn’t on the board, would they be able to explain it? Can the student identify the learning that is supposed to happen that day? These clear and transparent learning targets are a key component of a competency based system. An effective learning target will allow both the teacher and the learner to know whether or not they met the target.

Formative assessment

In a competency based system teaching and learning look different. It is important to wonder why a child is getting to the final assessment (if that’s how it is set up) not ready? As teachers, it is our job to be formatively assessing learners along the way. Not only should we be checking in everyday about progress, we need to be responding when we get data that tells us a child is not getting it. In addition, this response should be a different response than the one previously used that didn’t work.

Curriculum & Instruction

Does the design of the curriculum allow for learners to come back around to skills and content in a variety of ways or is it designed so that learners can’t move on until they “retake” the test? First of all, this is the fun part. Redesigning curriculum is a creative and challenging task so embrace this opportunity. Second of all, proficiency based learning requires a shift in the way we think about and deliver curriculum. We can’t just offer retakes and not change anything else about teaching and learning and call it proficiency based because learners can keep trying.

Offering opportunities to meet proficiencies is one aspect of competency based learning but it isn’t the only one and there is not one way to offer those opportunities. There are so many things we have control of in this situation; so many things we can change, actions we can take. I’d love to hear a change you think would up the game on competency based learning in your classroom/ school? Also, I know people are thinking about their content. Say it. Be devil’s advocate and comment in the comments section or directly to me @fearlessteachrs.





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