The Often-Overlooked Super-Secret Component of Competency/Proficiency-Based Learning

This was originally posted on on December 15, 2015 by Matt Drewette-Card.


They’re similar, yet they are so very different.  And that difference makes ALL of the difference.

Standards-based vs. Proficiency-based.

In Maine, we have a law (LD 1422) that is centered on “proficiency” based learning.  I’ve previously written about a simple definition for proficiency  that works, but in conversations, conferences, workshops, meetings, etc., I keep hearing “standards-based” being thrown around instead of “proficiency-based.”  So, I started digging around.  I found that Maine is a HUB for the word “proficiency.”  New Hampshire uses ‘competency;” Connecticut uses “mastery.”  Their intention is the same, but the words are different.  OK.  No big deal.  Same thing with “standards-based” right?


A system can be “standards-based” but not “proficiency-based.”  A student can advance in a standards-based system while not being proficient.  How so?  If the student fails to meet the expected level of complexity in the standard, then “proficiency” hasn’t been met.  Complexity is the skill-part of the standard… you know… when the standard says, “compare and contrast…” or “analyze…” or “identify…”.  That part.  To be proficient, a student needs to prove the content at the level of complexity that’s in the standard, and any assessment(s) need to mirror that complexity.

Got it?  Good.

Because there’s something else missing.  A super-secret component that is often left out of the “proficiency-based” equation.  And, I argue, it’s probably the most important.


We’re very comfortable talking about content; we’ve been doing that for decades.  We’re marginally comfortable talking about complexity.  That’s an area that’s been in our educational lexicon for decades, but we’re still struggling with what it “looks like.”  And the extent to which our instruction, assessment, and curriculum are all aligned in terms of complexity.  By content: sure.  That’s easy.  By complexity: that’s harder.

So what about autonomy?

In a rigorous learning environment, to be certified as being “proficient,” or “competent” or having “met the standard,” students should be expected to meet the learning goals independently.  At that point in their learning, they shouldn’t need teacher intervention, support, or direction.  That should have already happened dozens of times.  Autonomy is where students can look at a situation and know whether or not the taught/learned skill and content are appropriate for the situation, and then be able to apply that skill and content correctly and fluently.  That’s autonomy in a rigorous learning environment.

So, how often are our students provided these authentic experiences to demonstrate autonomy and proficiency?  How often, as a summative assessment, simply give the student(s) the learning goal and say:

In terms of summative assessments, I think our teachers and educators spend way too much time developing them.  A summative assessment should just be the goal or the standard.  Period.  That’s it.  If the student is ready, than s/he should be able to INDEPENDENTLY APPLY ALL EXPECTATIONS.

To make our students more resilient to challenges, we have to prepare them to live in a world without safety nets.  Our schools are great sandboxes to play with this concept, as school itself is a safety net.  We can teach them independence.  We can teach them autonomy.  We can teach them that the core principle of a free society is knowing when to use a skill, as well as when not to use it.

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