Letter to the Editor: Understanding Competency Based Learning

Shannon Hargreaves

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Dear Editor, 

As a student, there is nothing better than getting a big “A” on the top of your paper after a difficult test. But what does it really mean about what you have learned? What if, instead of an “A,” you get a bunch of threes or fours on the essay? This new competency-based grading system gives students, parents, and teachers a breakdown of more information about where students are in their learning. According to the 21st-century learning resource Teach Thought, “Competency-based learning is an approach to education that focuses on the student’s demonstration of desired learning outcomes as central to the learning process.” As a student for the past five years in the Amherst and Souhegan school districts, an elected member of the Souhegan Community Council, and student leader of its Grading Committee, I have taken a sincere interest in this subject. I believe our education is important. I also have experienced both the traditional grading system and the competency-based learning approach. Although I have noticed some small doubts within the community, this new grading and learning system is far more beneficial than you may think; it allows a more in-depth grasp of learning and provides more opportunities for student success. 

Looking for more opinions on competency-based education? Paige Colbys photo essay asks the Souhegan Community their opinions on the current grading system.

For Amherst and Mont Vernon students to be able to succeed in school, they must understand how they learn. For so long, our education system was built around preparing children for agricultural and industrial work. Now it’s time to make the learning fit today’s standard that helps students dig deeper and apply their learning to real-world situations. Competency-based learning is also the key to help students wrap their heads around how they learn. A bigger and better way for a student to dissect how they are doing is the new grading scale of 1 (Beginning Standard), 2 (Approaching Standard), 3 (Meeting Standard), 4 (Extending Beyond Standard). This approach helps because instead of a “B” circled at the top of an assessment, there are now multiple small grades to break down and address the specific learning goals. Students will know exactly where they struggle and know where they need their focus because the grades give them specific feedback. After seeing these results, students will be able to self-advocate and work on the areas they need to improve. Furthermore, in the future, students and parents will even be able to track how the student is doing over time on a trendline. Kathy White, a Souhegan High School Dean of Faculty who has worked extensively on competency-based learning for Souhegan High School states, “[The trendline] allows students to directly watch their learning grow and improve over time.” The trendline is one way that students can gain an understanding of how they learn. This knowledge helps them take more control of their learning because they know what they are doing right and wrong.         


While every student can learn, everyone processes and advances at different paces; no one is the same. With competency-based learning, students are not limited when it comes to opportunities to expand their learning at their own pace. Now success is more possible for various types of learners. Competency-based learning provides Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) for students who want to accelerate their learning. It also provides support for students who learn at a slower pace. Dian Schaffhauser, who studies and writes on education and technology topics states in the article, Technologies That Unlock Competency-Based Learning, “learning becomes the constant, time becomes the variable.” Another benefit is that because not all learning happens in the classroom, students can learn through outside experiences. They can demonstrate competency through opportunities such as internships or community service. These ELOs allow students to be more in control of their learning. School is more than just books, books, books, and endless memorization. Skills that students will need after school are being stressed even more such as critical thinking, self-direction, collaboration, communication, and problem solving. More students will be driven to accomplish their objectives inside and outside of school because of these opportunities. Despite these positive benefits, some still question what competency-based learning replaces.  

While many people are excited about what competency-based learning brings, others aren’t too quick to hop on board to the competency-based learning approach. Lisa Westmans, in an article for The Education Week Blog, “Finding Common Ground,” makes a good point in her article, “Standard Based Grading Made My Kid Average.” A friend of Westman’s “relayed that her daughter (who was formerly an “A” student) had received all ‘meets requirements’ and no ‘exceeds requirements’ on her report card, and, therefore, her daughter was now, ‘just average.’” It may feel more difficult to exceed the standard and achieve more, but every child’s goal range varies. The truth is competency-based learning does not directly align with the traditional system, according to Westman. It is its own completely different system. “Meeting standards” does not mean average; it just means the student is where they should be. Students have the option to exceed and learn above where they need to be at any point. Earning an “A” does not really show what the student has mastered. We need something that better prepares our children for today’s world.  

Through competency-based learning, I have taken more ownership of my learning and noticed my peers slowly but surely adapting to this effective way of learning. I encourage our community to embrace this change because it has so much more to offer. Parents and community members are concerned for their children’s learning; they want them to be happy and to have a good education, which will carry them through to the rest of their lives. Education is more than it was before. So many schools all over the world have realized how much better competency-based learning is, and that’s why they are switching. If you are a parent or guardian of a student making the transition into competency-based learning, please learn what you can about it by reaching out to administrators or teachers in your district or by going to OneSchoolStreet. Make sure to communicate with your child as transitioning into anything new can be stressful. Competency-based learning will have a positive impact on the students going through school today.   




Shannon Hargreaves  

Shannon Hargreaves is a grade representative on Community Council for her freshman class. She also is a student leader on Community Council’s Grading Committee.

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