A Feedback-Focused Framework for Assessing Student Progress

Story by Leslie King, Director of Communications

Durham Academy Middle School parent Dr. Chet Patel remembers what it was like to chase that A. As a pre-med major at the University of Texas at Austin, grades were everything. “Like I’ve got to get the A or I’m not getting into medical school,” he recalled. “I used to study quite a bit, probably more than I needed to. I was just studying the material I already knew, going over and over it until I felt really, really good about it. I knew I was going to get a 94. I got it. I could dial it in — tell me what score you want and I will go get it for you.” 

But Patel wasn’t always that kind of kid. As a student who grew up and attended grade school in England, he had a different model, one that centered on depth of knowledge and understanding rather than high scores on tests. “I never took a multiple-choice test until I got here [to the U.S.] at age 17,” he explained. “So you had to know the material, because everything was written and you had to explain your answer, you had to support what you were doing. And that was just how school was for us … but there was a lot more subjectivity because the teacher had to read through what you wrote and make sense of where you were at.” 

And that style also allowed for more teacher feedback. “You took something away from every correct answer and every wrong answer, and that was good. I didn’t realize it back then, but for the student, it was actually very helpful. It was the teacher taking time to really get to know what kind of learners they are.”

Patel has had a front-row seat as his children Avi (grade 6) and Maya (grade 8) participate in Durham Academy’s pilot of Competency-Based Learning (CBL), a system of assessing, teaching and communicating about student learning, with a framework that doesn’t generate number or letter grades based on tests and quizzes, but instead provides comprehensive, actionable feedback about student progress and performance through narrative assessments of student competencies in their subject matter.

CBL is meant to:

Provide clarity about student progress, strengths and weaknesses through comprehensive feedback.

Personalize each student’s learning experience.

Shift traditional methods of assessment (exams and quizzes) to course-specific competencies and mastery of concepts.

Help grow students’ self-confidence and skill in taking ownership of their own learning.

“One of the things as a teacher that strikes me about the kids here, at least from fifth and sixth and seventh grade, when they talk about taking risks in their classwork, they don’t want to because they’re worried about losing their grade,” said Middle School science teacher and seventh-grade advisor Cliff Robbins, who is piloting CBL in his seventh-grade class and is the project manager for the 2021–2022 CBL pilot. 

“The system that we have across most of the school is ‘I don't want to lose my grade’ or ‘How can I protect my grade’ as opposed to ‘How can I build to learn?’” he continued. “If I’m thinking about my students holding on to this golden idol of a grade that they’re in risk of losing, that student is not going to have a healthy relationship with grades.”

“CBL provides a clearer understanding of what you can improve on,” said eighth-grader Maya Patel, whose pilot class is language arts. “In past classes, letter grades have left me feeling satisfied with how I did, but slightly confused on how I could better my writing or work. Although I am used to receiving traditional grades, I think CBL in certain classes is the best option for a wider variety of learners.” 

The 2021–2022 CBL pilot includes nine teachers and five courses: sixth-grade history and Spanish, seventh-grade science and language arts, and eighth-grade language arts. Student competencies are determined by the transfer goals (the desired outcomes for specific knowledge and skill mastery) for each subject. Teachers engaged in targeted professional development for almost two years, and as the most immersed educators in the practice, they will help train other teachers as CBL ultimately expands to include the entire Middle School.

The seeds of incorporating competency-based learning at the Middle School were planted five to six years earlier, when Middle School Director Jon Meredith attended various national independent school conferences and watched presentations from peer institutions that were in the process of implementing or had already implemented CBL. DA’s plan took on a three-pronged approach: research; developing structure and frameworks with the help of CBL specialist Rose Colby; and pilot project management and evaluation. 

Spring 2020 — when DA was fully remote and both the Middle and Upper Schools (and even colleges) had to pivot away from traditional academic assessments because of skyrocketing student stress — provided the perfect window of opportunity to put CBL to the test and start to upend what was becoming a heavily grade-centric culture among DA’s 10-to-14-year-olds.

“For years, I’ve been sitting in faculty meetings and team meetings talking with people about how frustrated they are that when kids leave classes, the first thing they do on the sidewalk is get their papers out and they start looking at them with somebody else on the sidewalk, saying, ‘What did you get? What did you get? I got an A. I got an A and a B,’” Meredith said. “And then we see the fallout of all that — kids are depressed, they start going to teachers, they start angling for extra help for all the wrong reasons. They were just doing it to up their grade. … As more and more research was coming out about how stressed out kids were, it just lined up perfectly — we know this [grades] is a big part of it.”

New DA parent Jamie Kennedy, who moved to North Carolina from the Bay Area in August with her husband and eighth-grader Kingston Hurt, was already well-versed in CBL from Kingston’s previous school, which used it in grades K–8. Part of the appeal of DA was the potential for Kingston to participate in integrating CBL into an already academically rigorous environment. 

“He wanted to be challenged more in classes, he didn’t necessarily want to be tested more in that way. He wanted more information more quickly, but he wanted to learn it for self-driven reasons. That’s what you guys offer,” Kennedy explained. 

But Kennedy is quick to emphasize that in her family’s experience, CBL doesn’t necessarily sacrifice rigor just because there are no number or letter grades. In fact, she says it’s quite the opposite — that CBL provides a multi-dimensional view into a student’s progress, performance and conceptual understanding. And she believes that such a comprehensive feedback and evaluation structure helps prepare students for college and careers.

“I think when we’re looking at 21st century skills, which is what our school is really big on, some of the biggest things — critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, flexibility, inclusiveness — you hit all of them because you don’t have a traditional grading structure,” she continued. “Can you work well with other people? Can you pick out their strengths and use those strengths to create something that’s very engaging? Can you show how information can be interpreted in lots of different ways and explain it?… That’s a different thing than feeling like, ‘Here’s the material I was given, I have to study this, I have to turn back into a test form and then I get somebody else to tell me whether I get it right or wrong.’”

Meredith, Robbins and the Middle School team introduced CBL and the pilot process through a series of parent meetings this fall — first with the pilot families themselves, and then with all Middle School families. And just like with any big change, it’s taking some time to sink in.

“I heard a lot of comments like ‘Well, that’s not how it is in the real world,’” Patel recalled. “But we’re talking to a bunch of generally high-functioning people who have been through a system and perform really well in a system like that. But the world is changing. It’s not the world that we went through. It’s a world that our kids are about to go through, and that is a different beast.”

Meredith also heard from some parents who weren’t sure what to make of CBL.

“I think there were some reactions that this is too out there in left field or it’s not comfortable, it’s not what I’m used to,” he said. “But I think most people get that this is something that has a potential upside, we just need to make sure we’re doing it right and being careful about it. … We’re being very discerning about this, and it’s not a flash-in-the-pan idea.”

Pilot teachers have been equally deliberate and methodical through their preparation and extra work, applying the same growth mindset and grit to reinventing teaching and learning that they’re asking of their students. Robbins credits DA families’ trust in them as educators in helping them feel free to be vulnerable and forge strong connections with students as they embark on the CBL journey together.

“The thing that’s been the most difficult is that we’re learning just like the kids are learning and we’re having to adapt what we’re doing with the same cadence that we’re asking our kids to adapt and respond to the feedback we’re giving them,” he said. “But I also think it’s super authentic and we’ve been super up front with the kids about ‘We’re going to try this thing and we’re doing it in a new way, we have good reasons for it, and just like you’re going to try and do this experiment in a new way that you’ve never done before and you’re going to mess it up, that’s going to be OK, because we’re going to mess it up differently.’”

Maya Patel appreciates that partnership: “One challenge of CBL includes the learning curve, but having our teachers learn alongside us has been beneficial, since we ask more questions in order to develop a better understanding of both CBL and the assignment expectations.”

Her dad says he appreciates that CBL focuses on the “good stuff” — the narrative comments that help both the teacher and the student understand what makes them “tick.” In his role as Duke Department of Medicine’s vice chair for clinical affairs and as an associate professor of medicine in cardiology, Patel trains doctors who are soon to become professors and attending physicians. With his adult learners, he emphasizes deliberate practice and graduated progress, not necessarily a number score on an evaluation.

“[It’s] the idea of getting a little bit better every day and assessing that, as opposed to measuring it in one way and getting feedback and learning from that feedback and trying things slightly differently,” he said. “A good analogy is: I’m really good at kicking the ball with my right leg. What’s better — you kicking the ball for an hour with your right leg and saying you did something really awesome or kicking the ball with your left leg for 15 minutes and getting better?”

To Meredith, exploring CBL is one way Durham Academy can be a leader among its peer schools.

“I think if there’s one word that this whole process has a chance to either define better or redefine, it’s the word rigor,” he said. “DA is always going to be an academically rigorous school, but rigor doesn’t have to look like what rigor looked like at academically rigorous schools 20 years ago. And in fact, it shouldn’t. So this is a way of making sure that we are still rigorous, pushing kids to be better, but doing it in ways that take into account all the educational research that’s been done, and this is sort of the outcome of it.” 

Meredith admits there are still some fairly large wrinkles to work out. They haven’t found a slam-dunk option for recording CBL assessments that is tailor-made for the practice; many schools have had to adapt existing platforms or build their own. And Middle School academic leaders are in deep conversation with the Upper School about outlining the transition to the only division with grades, which is fixed due to colleges’ expectations of a traditional transcript. It’s a transition that Middle School students and their parents are hoping for additional clarity on as well.

But Robbins sees CBL as foundational for the self-confidence necessary for eighth-graders to navigate the shift to Upper School. “They’re not afraid when they get an assessment back anymore,” he explains. “It’s not like ‘Oh no, I got this terrible grade.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do the thing here and oh, I see what I need to do here, I’m going to take another shot at this, or on the next one.’”

For sixth-grader Avi Patel, participating in the CBL history pilot reminds him of his journey to becoming a black belt in taekwondo — where the coaching emphasizes process before product. “What I have learned about myself as a learner, is that feedback helps me and it is not always a bad thing,” he said. “I have learned that I don't learn with a letter grade, it just satisfies me and makes me either happy or mad. CBL lets me understand that more because of how much more I've learned and improved as a learner. Also CBL doesn't give me strong emotions like traditional grades do, instead it gives me information about what I need to do next.”

Kennedy believes the resilience and creativity fostered by CBL will be critical for the DA graduates of the future — in college and in life. “Kids are perceptive. In a school that drives for success in a way that’s sort of ‘Are you getting into a good school [college]? Do you have those options?’ I think [CBL] broadens what success could be for students. And I think the more students are given that freedom, I think they’ll succeed more robustly beyond the limit of what we’re defining it as. And it’s the small things, like how do you create a dynamic partnership that engages the students in a joyful way? I think CBL is the first step.”

Photography by Melody Guyton Butts // Illustration by Sarah Jane Tart