Understanding Sanborn’s Innovative Competency-Based Learning Model

This article was written by:

Ann Hadwen, Assistant Principal, Sanborn Regional High School
Brian M. Stack,Principal, Sanborn Regional High School
Michael Turmelle, Assistant Principal / Curriculum, Sanborn Regional High School

Video: Sanborn's Journey to Competency-Based Learning
For a better part of this past decade, Sanborn Regional High School has received local, state, and national attention for its innovative approach to teaching learning, a system known as competency-based learning. When we are asked to explain what competency-based learning is and what it provides for our students, particularly to new-comers in our school, we often start with an example that everyone can relate to – driver education.

When the state issues someone a new driver license, it has verified that person has demonstrated successfully their ability to perform the critical skills necessary to operate a vehicle – things like following traffic rules, making appropriate decisions when interacting with traffic, and parking a car. The best way for the state to determine whether or not a new driver has earned a license is to put them through a performance task – an actual driving test with an evaluator who rates their performance on each and every critical driving skill. The evaluator will not give a passing score on the driving test unless the person can perform at a basic level (or higher) at each skill.

Think about this: You can’t get a license if you can’t park a car, no matter how good your other skills are. Every skill matters. Driving a car is a life or death skill, and as such, the state will not (and should not) lower its expectations for obtaining a license to operate a vehicle. The system used by the state guarantees the same uniform set of standards will be taught regardless of how or where a person learns how to drive a car, and it further guarantees that new drivers have mastered all of the critical skills necessary to operate a vehicle on public roads. Everyone’s safety is at stake, or at risk, if the state didn’t have such a rigorous system in place.

This driver education example is perfectly aligned with the competency-based learning philosophy. In competency-based learning, each course offered has a set of critical skills, known as course competencies, which must be mastered by students to successfully pass the course. Instruction and assessment are closely aligned to those course competencies, and students are graded on their level of performance on each of those competencies throughout the course through the use of high-level tests known as performance tasks. How well a student performs on a particular skill, known as performance level, has been defined in advance by a tool known as a rubric. In the driver education example, parking the car is an example of a course competency. The driving instructor tailors instruction and assessment specifically for each student to help them develop and refine their parking skills. When it comes time to judge the student on their ability to park a car, it is done through a performance task. Specifically, the student is asked to demonstrate their ability to park a car to an evaluator in different conditions. The evaluator uses a rubric to decide whether or not that student performed the parking skill at a deficient, a basic, an intermediate, or an advanced level.

For us, the decision to move to a competency-based learning model was first identified in the District’s 2009 Strategic Plan as a better way to organize teaching and learning for all students. It was designed to raise the bar of expectations for all students, to promote rigor, and most importantly, to guarantee that when students receive a grade, that grade is a true representation of what a student knows and is able to do. At Sanborn, we hold all students to the same high expectations, and with our competency-based learning model, we are committed to helping them reach their true potential and prepare them to be successful in college, in the workplace, and in life.


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