Guest post by Brian M. Stack

I have spent more than a decade as the principal of a high school that has gained national recognition as an early adopter of a competency-based learning model. As one who has been a part of this transition and implementation since its beginning, I am always happy to offer practical advice to fellow principals on the topic. The most popular question I am asked is about how to introduce the idea of competency-based learning to parents and other stakeholders who do not work in the education field. To date, I have found no better way to do this than to relate it to a very common assessment experience that most adults have in common: obtaining a driver’s license. 

Think about this: Driving a car is a life or death skill, and as a result, states have developed a very reliable system to ensure that people are not issued a driver’s license until they can prove that they are proficient in their driving ability—proficient enough that the state can be reasonably sure that they will not harm themselves or others from a lack of ability behind the wheel. The reliability of this system lies in how driver education programs support the state’s driver’s-license testing process, and ultimately, how states administer those tests to prospective drivers. What can we, as educators, learn from this system? Here are some parallels that I have drawn between the two systems to explain to stakeholders why a competency-based system makes sense for schools.

  1. Both systems are built on competencies and standards. The building blocks for both systems are competencies. Competency is a student’s ability to transfer content and skills to other areas. Competencies for a driver include things like parking a car in a variety of settings navigating a car through various intersections, driving a car on a multi-lane highway. Competencies are made up of content standards, also known as performance indicators. Think of competencies as the “why” and standards as the “what.” Unpacking the parking competency, for example, results in standards for perpendicular, parallel, and angular parking. It is easy to see that any driving competency can be broken down into specific standards. A driver education course is made up of several driving competencies, and each one is based on several standards.
  2. In these systems, both formative and summative assessments serve important but distinct roles in the learning process. In competency-based systems, the summative assessment represents the demonstration of learning through performance. It is the basis for the final grade(s) for a course. Formative assessments are considered practice, and therefore not factored into final grades. Driver education programs typically require students to spend a certain amount of time behind the wheel with an instructor to practice their skills and get feedback on their learning (formative assessment). The state asks students to demonstrate their learning through a performance task known as a road test where students show the evaluator that they have mastered each driving skill (summative, performance assessment).
  3. In these systems, learning is individually-paced, with opportunities for reassessment. The state will never penalize someone for how long it took them to prepare for the driving test, nor will they punish them if they need to take the test more than once. Once an individual has passed the test, they get their license, and it is their validation that they are proficient with each driving competency. In competency-based systems, learning happens along a continuum in a similar manner. Reassessment is a natural course of action when a student has not yet demonstrated their learning at a high enough level to move on to the next topic, skill, or course.
  4. In these systems, final grades are rubric-based, not calculated using averages and percentages. If you were to fail the highway driving competency but pass the others with a score high enough to give you a passing grade when all grades are averaged, should you get your driver’s license? Should a pilot have a license to fly if they can’t pass the plane landing competency? Of course not. In competency-based systems, students must demonstrate proficiency with each competency. Course credit is not awarded until the student is proficient with each. Driving a car cannot be measured with percentages. Would it make sense to suggest that one is proficient in a particular driving skill if they can perform it 80 percent of the time? What about 90 percent of the time? Of course not. Driver assessments are scored using criterion-referenced tools that competency-based systems refer to as rubrics.

When presented with this comparison, most stakeholders that I have encountered can understand and appreciate why our school has adopted a competency-based learning model. If it makes sense for a life or death skill such as driving a car, it certainly should make sense in a school setting.

How would you introduce a competency-based learning system to your school community? How would you generate buy-in from parents, teachers, and other stakeholders, and build good lines of communication?

Brian M. Stack was the 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, and also serves as a member of the Nellie Mae Speaker Bureau and as an expert for He co-authored a book with colleague Jonathan Vander Els entitled Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. You can follow him on Twitter @bstackbu or learn more by visiting his blog.

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