Competency Based Education Specialist

This is a recording of our recent webinar/book introduction for the Michigan CoOp on October 29, 2020:


These are some blogs I have published on and Getting Smart.

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Coherent Grading and Reporting Systems in CBE Part 3

Posted on June 4, 2020 at 4:00 PM


Building Coherent High School Grading and Reporting Systems in Competency-Based Education, Part 3



March 19, 2020


Authors: Rose Colby


Issues: Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments


Competency-based grading reform addresses ways that traditional grading falls short in communicating student learning. This final article in the series considers the complexity of grading reform at the high school level. It is important that a very holistic and realistic approach is considered as part of a process to improve grading practices in high schools. This process may take several phases of improvement and must engage educators in developing a valid and reliable balanced performance assessment system, instructional changes that support personalized learning, and grading scales that separate reporting of academic growth from growth in personal success skills (dispositions).


Involving the parent community and students in grading reform at the high school should begin long before a cohort of students arrives for their first day of their high school experience. Grade system reform at earlier grade levels should be introduced as a system wide shift that will grow with students as they move through the system. This introduces the concept of high school grading reform early on to parents.


Many parents appreciate the wealth of information they receive on their child’s standards-based/proficiency-based report cards in grades K-8. However, they feel that at the high school level, “grades count,” and those grades must be reported in traditional fashion to allow their child’s successful pathway to a college of their choice.


The essential question that should guide grading reform at the high school level is: What is the body of evidence needed to demonstrate that the graduate is ready academically and personally for the next phase of their lives? This body of evidence is collected over time and guided by the community profile of their graduate. This profile is the high school’s contract with parents, and all systems within the high school need to teach, learn, and assess these values. This includes the grading system, whose purpose is to report out a student’s growth in these characteristics leading to graduation.


In working with many schools and systems as they transform to CBE, it is often the high school that I find most challenged in doing this. They often rush into changes that at first seem simple and direct but in reality are connected deeply with institutional practices that are accessories to traditional grading. The figure below demonstrates the common elements that are connected to most grading systems. There may be other subtle ones such as grading criteria used for school privileges. It is important that each high school take a comprehensive review of all aspects of school culture in determining how grading may be implicated by policy or practice. This will define the scope of grading reform for the school. Rushing into this too quickly soon becomes a problem than can jeopardize the best intentions in grade reform.


Common Elements of Grading Systems


In taking a step back to appreciate the enormity and the complexity of this work, it is best to take a research-based approach and to engage the community stakeholders in the process of shaping a grading philosophy for the high school. Several schools I have worked with have moved too quickly to new CBE grading systems that are not supported by how teachers assess or grade or are based on what teachers prefer instead of what is best for students. To build and communicate a coherent, reliable body of evidence, you may have to dig deep into your traditional institutional practices that your community may simply be very attached to as part of the culture of the high school. There is wisdom in understanding that some pieces of grade reform may take longer than others.


The first “best” advice for high school grading reform must be to plan and provide professional learning in designing high-quality academic and personal competencies, high-quality performance assessments, and instructional strategies that promote personalization in learning. This can take place without changing a grading system. Yet, it allows time to mine the research and related information that will shape a high school grading system.


Resources that address these areas should be gathered, shared, and discussed by educators, school leaders, students, parents, school board members, local business community members, and regional higher education institutions. (Several resources are provided below.) Some of the most powerful information will come from students—we need to listen to their voices in changing how we communicate their learning.


At the heart of transforming a traditional high school grading system, it is important to recognize what elements need to be dropped, what elements need to be created, and what elements need to be made more equitable. Here are a few probes to open up these discussions and to research during the formative stages of high school grading redesign:


Honor rolls: What is the purpose of an honor roll? Are honor rolls important to our community? Are honor rolls relevant to college admission or workplace readiness? What are the ways to best recognize academic scholarship and personal growth? How often should honor rolls be published and where should they be published?

GPA, weighted courses, school transcript/school profile—the traditional artifacts of college admission: How do your regional colleges and universities handle each of these as part of the admissions process? Do your local colleges use their own system for scoring course grades and the rigor of courses as part of the admission process? How do local colleges use the unique high school profile to build a profile for admissions consideration? Is there a common admissions profile in considering traditional high schools, international schools, home schooling, competency-based schools, and charter schools? What information is most important to communicate to local businesses in considering candidates for workplace settings before or after high school graduation? Are there equity issues in the access or readiness requirements for existing course levels? How are each of the course level designations defined and implemented with fidelity by course teachers? How many course levels are needed and why?

Class rank: How do students view the benefits or disadvantages of ranking students? Is class rank necessary for college admission or scholarships? Is there a better way of ranking students such as the college system of summa, magna, and cum laude honors? How can a broader range of evidence be used in class ranking?

In the end, undertaking a thoughtful, community-based approach to high school grading reform should be planned over a span of time that best serves the end-product you want: an equitable high school grading philosophy or set of grading practices that yields a body of evidence that a learner is ready to graduate with full confidence of future-readiness for both higher education and the workplace.


Grading Reform Resources


Feldman, J. 2018. Grading for Equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Guskey, T. R. 2013. The Case Against Percentage Grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.

Marzano, R. J. 2006. Classroom Assessment & Grading That Work. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

O’Connor, K. 2017. How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards, 4th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Reeves, D. 2010. Elements of Grading: A Guide to Effective Practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wormeli, R. 2018. Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, 2nd Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers." target="_blank">http://

Coherent Grading and Reporting Systems in CBE Part 2

Posted on June 4, 2020 at 3:55 PM


Building Coherent Grading and Reporting Systems in Competency-Based Education, Part 2


 March 16, 2020

 Author: Rose Colby

 This is the second post in a guest series. 


In Part 1 of this series, several essential features were highlighted to design coherent communication of student learning, leading to students fully reaching their school’s graduate profile. The work to create high-quality academic competencies, progressions of personal success skills, and performance assessments is critical and requires educators to have the opportunity to work together within disciplines and vertically across the K-12 spectrum. While this work is ongoing, it is possible to begin changing an existing traditional grading system.


The traditional 0-100-point scale used in arriving at term grades is one of the most inequitable practices in grading and should be at the forefront of grading reform[1]. However, our education systems hold onto this practice tightly, especially at the secondary level. When calculating a student’s average score across multiple assignments, the typical practice is to assign 60 or even 70 out of 100 points to the failing range. This unduly weights down the score, making recovery nearly impossible, even if a student later demonstrates mastery. Moving away from this practice will require thoughtful work explaining its negative impact to key stakeholders.


But what if your community is not ready yet to leave behind seeing a number on a report card? To start the transition, begin by moving your 0-100-point scale to a 60-100-point scale. This will begin the process of improving reliability. As Guskey explains, it’s not possible to make accurate distinctions across 100 levels of quality or competency. It will also better align letter grades against a scale: 60-69 = Not Yet Competent; 70-79 = C; 80-89 = B; and 90-100 = A. This can then be used to assign a 4.0 scale. Now you are on your way to grading reform.


(Oh! What happened to the D? This is one of the easiest and earliest changes that can be made. In educating your school community about competency-based education and drawing from real-world examples, it is relatively easy to point out that a D simply isn’t competent.)


However, moving to a 40-point system while eliminating the D is a positive step forward in beginning to change the professional grading culture and learning culture in classrooms. It is our role as educators to help students reach competency and not merely to record their failures. The system must provide the learning supports for students to address their difficulties in real time, not wait until the end of the term. This is a fundamental part of grading reform. In fact, it is better to hold off on changing your grading system until those supports have been planned and incorporated into your school’s teaching and learning practices.


An essential piece of coherence across K-12 grading reform is the norming of teacher grading practices. Simply put: all teachers must use the same grading practices. There should be no variation in weighting of grades, extra-credit points, or penalty points across the K-12 continuum of teacher practice. The best practices in using homework as a learning support should also be consistent throughout K-12. In my experience supporting schools through multi-year grade reform, homework grading practices are one of the most stubborn barriers. Thoughtful professional learning is needed to build the mindsets and understanding needed to move from one-size-fits-all homework assignments to using homework as high-quality, personalized support for formative learning.


Many changes in grading and reporting require school and district policy changes, such as those listed in the table below. School board members will also need to understand the rationale for changing grading practices and how doing so supports their profile of a graduate. Many standards-based grading efforts have failed when new grading and reporting systems were developed at the teacher level but failed to be approved at the school board level. Our educators’ time and trust are too valuable to waste in this way.


More often than not, when asked to work with schools on grading reform, educators begin by describing the need for a new report card. However, the report card is the final expression in the communication of learning, not the starting point. Instead of generating an entirely new report card, it is easier to change the report card slowly as grading practices become equitable and uniform.


In the third part of this series, the unique challenges of moving from traditional grading and reporting at the secondary level will be explained. These changes are not an event but a process that requires thoughtful leadership, deep professional learning, acceptance of uniform grading practices by educators, and extensive parent and community engagement over time." target="_blank">http://

Coherent Grading and Reporting Systems in CBE Part 1

Posted on June 4, 2020 at 3:55 PM

Building Coherent Grading and Reporting Systems in Competency-Based Education, Part 1



March 11, 2020


Authors: Rose Colby


Issues: Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Commit to Equity, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments





Rose Colby

This is the first post in a guest series. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.


As educators move to competency-based designs in teaching and assessment, they often realize that their traditional or standards-based grading approaches are inadequate in communicating student learning. These limitations include that students have minimal incentive or opportunity to improve their learning after grades are issued, students can earn passing grades even without substantive learning, and academic and personal performance are combined into a single grade.


It is important to begin grading reform work with some important design features to avoid some of the pitfalls in grading reform that can be difficult and unpleasant. First, it is important to consider that moving to competency-based grading is a system-wide change. Consider your learners and the walk they will take for up to twelve years in their learning within your system. There must be a concerted effort for each school and teacher to communicate the learning journey using the same criteria. The magnitude of this work can be overwhelming but creating a multi-year process to create systemic coherence is meaningful work.


Let’s begin with the Profile of your Graduate. This work is essential in shaping the teaching and learning opportunities K-12 and it is our obligation as educators to communicate the body of evidence that demonstrates a student is ready for the handshake at graduation. In working backward from graduation, how will you create a coherent continuum of learning and assessment that yields the body of evidence? In communicating this body of evidence throughout the K-12 learning experience, we must consider fair and equitable grading by all K-12 teachers.


Stripping the inequity out of traditional grading practices is essential. The process of undertaking grading changes must have a few ground rules and equity should be at the core of school policies and teacher practices. The reality is that grading is a very personal teaching activity. For better or worse, each teacher’s approach to grading generally differs from teacher to teacher. Therefore, in undertaking grading changes, we must approach these changes with the principles of fairness and equity[1]. The best practices in standards-based grading are a good starting point to move to competency-based grading. However, there is quite a bit of development work in competency-based learning and assessment that must be foundational before going public with a new grading system.


The first in this three-part series on competency-based grading will focus on establishing a roadmap to a new grade reporting system that focuses on the strong underpinnings of high quality academic and personal competencies, assessment systems, and grading policies:


Academic Competencies and Personal Success Skills: Create high-level academic competencies K-12 in all disciplines as well as the personal success skills aligned to your profile of the graduate.

Create Essential Standards That Support the Academic Competencies: These essential standards reduce the number of standards generally found in most curricula. These standards are incorporated into units of study. Each unit of study should identify which competencies are at play within the unit. This mapping allows teachers to determine how often competencies are addressed across the curriculum. The mapping should uncover redundancies and gaps in addressing competencies needed in the continuum to graduation.

Design a Holistic Proficiency Scale: This scale is essential in defining the criteria for proficiency/competency and forms the design elements for teacher-created rubrics guiding student products within units of study. Consider this sample scale as the bridge between a grading system and teacher assessment and grading practices:Performance Task Rubrics: Performance tasks are scored on rubrics customized to the performance descriptors in the Holistic Proficiency Scale. This really creates the coherence in all teachers assessing Competency/Proficiency using the same criteria in the summative declaration of a student’s learning.

Personal Success Skills: These are identified within the performance tasks, separate from academic competencies but assessed by the student as part of their metacognition and personal goal-setting and reported out separately.

As you can see, there is quite a lot to consider when undertaking grading reform. The work need not be sequential as you may have many pieces already in place. However, grading reform must be based on high-quality instructional design and assessment. There are many avenues to support professional learning to support this and for this reason, creating a timeline for grade reform must include the best supports possible for teachers to learn and apply new concepts of teaching and learning in competency-based learning.


The next article in this series on grading reform will describe the specific school-wide policy considerations and the changes in teacher grading practices that should be considered when designing competency-based grading systems. The third and final article in the series will provide a list of grading reform resources." target="_blank">http://


[1] Feldman, Joe. 2018. Grading for Equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.



What is the Story that You Will Tell of Your Journey?

Posted on November 7, 2014 at 8:10 PM

November 7, 2014 by Rose Colby

Business man showing superhero suit“Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound……”


….Superman? No, not really. Looking back over the past several years in competency education, perhaps SuperPioneer is a more apt superhero symbol. In the early days of competency education, the road ahead of us was somewhat unchartered, with unknown hazards and delays along the way. The early pioneers were a bit lonely without the familiar guideposts and waypoints that normally give direction. GPS? No such thing. But one thing could be counted on—with each rising of the sun, we were that much closer to journey’s end.


What is the story that you will tell of your journey down the road to competency education? What legacy will you leave to those who follow in your district after you step off the path? These may seem like silly questions, but I do believe they are important ones. You see, we are at a unique time in the history of education. In leaving behind what some people are already calling the “dark era in education,” we find ourselves at that fork in the road where we can either forge new experiences unleashed from the past, or we can choose the path that guarantees the journey ahead will repeat the last hundred miles.


In choosing the path that takes us to new adventures, we may have to lighten our load and find new resources. Now, is this starting to sound and feel familiar, SuperPioneer? The lesson in all this is really about being of brave heart, about being courageous and optimistic that our journey’s end will be close at hand, and knowing that we survived the bad weather, floods, droughts, and dangers along the way.


So fellow pioneers, take heart. Others have heard the stories of your journey and are beginning to gather their resources to join you. Share your wisdom, your trials and tribulations, and your stories. They will enlighten, inspire, and urge others to take the bold first leg of the journey in a new era for teaching and learning.

(published in, November 7, 2014)

Competency Education: The Solution to Retention

Posted on August 14, 2014 at 9:35 PM

Competency Education: The Solution to Retention

December 30, 2013 by Rose Colby

ColbyRecently a group of teachers was working on performance tasks and assessments. They were aligning their units of study to competencies based on the Common Core State Standards. An interesting conversation erupted in the group. It was clear that the performance indicators they were designing within their performance tasks represented a more rigorous approach than in the past. One teacher wondered what will happen to students who, by the end of the school year, do not demonstrate mastery of the literacy competencies. When I asked what happened in the past when students failed at the end of the school year, the teacher answered: “ Well, we retain them.”


As a former middle school principal, I know that decisions about retention are difficult. In spite of knowing the adverse effects of retention on future success, educators and parents generally spend many hours considering interventions and social emotional issues before arriving at the decision to retain a child.


As we turn the corner in designing new learning systems, the notion of considering retention can now be safely set aside. In a competency based learning system, no child is retained. It is as simple as that. Why? Because with the design of learning progressions, mastery is also progressive. Our students will move through our learning systems with forward progress at all times. Some students will need more support, customization, and time to do so. Educational leaders will have the ability to use resources within their organizations very differently.


At the recent iNACOL Virtual Symposium, Susan Patrick, iNACOL’s Chief Executive Officer, commented on the hold that seat time has in our educational systems in spite of policy which allows us to design learning systems differently. I propose that when decisions about student learning and instructional supports and resources are made based on customized learning with identified learning progressions that are not grade level based, we will break through the hold that seat time has on moving competency education forward.


Learning progressions and mapping of competencies and performance indicators are new constructs in instructional design. Coupled with systemic designs for relearning and reassessment in a formative fashion along the learning path, students will move through our schools never having to suffer the stigma and negative consequences of retention.


What better place to start that breakthrough than in those conversations we have about students who are struggling to learn.

Audacious Thinking

Posted on June 23, 2014 at 4:20 PM

I was recently reading about Google X. We often think of the Google work place as the workplace of millennials that is like a toddler’s sandbox. It is filled with spaces for work and play and sets the pace for workspace design that challenges the thinking of educators who are working in spaces that are far different. Google X is the Google work environment on steroids. It is the think tank of Google where the only expectation of the employees is audacious thinking. This has really jarred my thinking. As we look at this new entity called competency education, we could really use a good dose of audacious thinking.

The No Child Left Behind era, which I hope is firmly ensconced in our rear view mirror, has trapped our thinking and caused a great deal of reactionary behavior in our ranks. Have you heard the following: “Our kids haven’t done well on the state test for the past few years, we must need a new literacy program.” “We don’t have enough supports in Math, we’ll just have to build an RTI system for that also.” What is really missing in this thinking is not our heartfelt effort and need to do better, but the real audacious thinking space we need to rethink not what we use in education but how to create a new design for learning.

What if instead of herding our educators together for a one or two day retreat to fix things, we create spaces for audacious thinking by some bright divergent thinking educators, parents, and community members. Let’s give them time--6 months to a year-- and an open space to gather together and research, think, and design prototypes for a real solution.. I like to use the ‘Dream, Design, Deliver’ concept. Google pretty much works under wraps. Where did those Google glasses come from anyhow? Who knew they were doing that? Secrecy in audacious thinking by a bright group of individuals who are passionate about kids would have to be guaranteed. Have you ever seen some really good ideas tank in your district because too many people jumped to an assumption that it could never work? Think about it… audacious thinking by good people in a space dedicated to redesigning local education…..