Teaching and Assessing What Matters (Part 1)

by Mike Peller, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning

The world needs healing. The world needs healers. Fires continue to burn throughout the west, and more frequent and dangerous hurricanes hammer the southeast; our country is more politically divided than ever before; the nation is having a long-awaited reckoning on race; and, COVID-19 continues to ravage our country and the world. As an educator, as someone who works with high school students, and as someone who works at the nexus of the present and the future, I feel a need to address these urgent issues. Competency learning creates the space for this important work to happen.

A few weeks ago, I shared with families the why and how of our competency-grading pilot in a webinar. We are currently starting the second year of a pilot program to reimagine teaching, assessment, and grading so that it can become truly mission-aligned. Notice that while we are piloting a grading system, we are, in fact, doing it so that we can align all aspects of the teaching and learning process with our mission: what we teach, how we teach, what feedback we give, and how grades are generated. We are asking important questions. How might a grading system encourage student-driven inquiry and engagement? How might a system of grading inspire students to live lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion? (If you missed the talk, you can view it here). While the presentation got quite granular in exploring the how of competency, the focus was primarily on the why. Why do we care so much about competency learning and the Essential Skills and Habits? 

In terms of the why of competency education, I will share three stories that focus on student learning. This first story illustrates the insidious nature of traditional grading. This is a story about a student named Sam. Sam was my student over ten years ago. She was a hard-working and gritty student. It was nearing the end of the semester. She came to my office hours and said: “Mr. Peller, I have an 89.6%. What can I do to turn this into an A-?” Operating within the system of traditional grading, this is not an atypical question by any means. It is a question Sam had learned to ask in a game of school she had been taught to play. So often, in a case like this, teachers either hide behind the numbers—“Sorry, Sam, the fact is you are 0.4% short of that grade.”—or they create some disconnected extra credit assignment that values compliance over learning. What is so wrong with this?

First, in terms of the 0-100 scale, do we really think humans have the precision to decipher between that many gradations. Just to be clear, a score of 89.6% assumes that humans can distinguish between one thousand gradations in the quality of student work. The research on grading shows vast bias and inconsistency in grading between teachers. Simply put, a score of 89.6% assumes far more accuracy than a human could ever provide. Second, what did Sam’s question about a better grade have to do about learning or improvement? All of the important information about what she needed to improve on was averaged away. 

It was in a collection of moments like the one talking with Sam that I realized the need to confront the grading system. This system is insidious because it sets up the teacher as a gatekeeper or sorter. Sam was not wrong to ask for an arbitrary bump in her grade. She was playing within the system of traditional grading. What I realized then, and what so many educators who truly care about student-driven learning have also realized, is that the system encourages students to act in this way, and thus it is the system that needs to change. Competency learning and competency grading provide an alternative that puts learning front and center and puts the teacher as a mentor versus an evaluator.

Okay, okay. Being student-centered and putting learning first may sound nice, but aren’t we risking something in deviating from how school has always been done? (Imagine asking someone in the tech industry or in marketing or in finance or, for that matter, in any industry other than education: Why are you trying new things? Why change? Just do it how it has always been done). When asked, in the context of diverging from the traditional grading system: “Why do something differently?” I respond: “Because it is best for the students, and best for the world.” Why? Let’s first remember that our educational system is built on an outdated factory model that cares more about efficiency than efficacy, which cares more about sorting kids into buckets of “smartness” than student learning. For too many students, the schools they attend—the very institutions that should foster learning—get in the way of meaningful learning while also stripping away the joy of following one’s curiosity. Why? Almost every school throughout the country is based on a 125-year-old factory model, a model born out of the industrial revolution. Over 125 years have passed since our current version of school was started. New industries have emerged, and the industries that have remained have needed to change and adapt significantly. All except the education sector. All except schools. The impact on kids is rather bleak: rather than flourishing, most students in schools across the country are simply trying to endure school. How devastating!

Instead of enduring, schools must create conditions such that students develop as flexible and creative problem solvers, who find meaning, purpose, and, dare I say, joy in their work. Schools create experiences through which students are actively encouraged to ask the questions: Who am I? What matters to me? How do I make sense of the world around me? Returning to the divided country and world in which we live—with a global pandemic wreaking havoc on our health care and economy, with systemic racism and other forms of oppression that need to be broken, and with such political turmoil that highlights a divided country—we need students to have the intellectual and emotional endurance to solve the truly gnarly problems that are literally right in front of them. Schools need to shift the focus from knowing to doing. Imagine this: Let’s finally see and embrace students for the highly capable thinkers that they are and encourage them to be part of the solution. Therefore, what we teach and what we assess must match the core competencies students need to become the thinkers, leaders, and community members the world so desperately needs. 

That gets into the how. The shift may appear small, though the impact is profound. The competency grading system focuses on skills (critical thinking, research, communication, etc.) versus performance type (tests, homework, projects). Rather than focusing on how a student does on tests, homework, papers, etc., in this pilot, the emphasis is entirely on the skills. For example, the pilot focuses on things such as written and verbal communication, building an argument, or collaborating effectively. Because there is so much choice in our learning and differentiation in the classes, this allows us to differentiate instruction to engage each student in the skill in which they need the most support. Most importantly, these are skills that matter independent of what a student may be doing at White Mountain or beyond, and since measurement is a proxy for values, we must measure what matters.

Let me conclude with the final stories of teaching and learning.

This second story is a story about Dan, a good friend, and former colleague. Dan was a teacher at Nueva, where I worked prior to The White Mountain School. Nearing the end of the semester, I went to visit his class. Students were busy at work. I asked a few kids what they were working on. The first student shared he was creating a podcast to demonstrate “use of evidence.” The next student shared she was writing an essay to demonstrate “argumentation.” I went up to Dan right away. I had never heard students so actively describe what they were doing in the context of what they wanted to show evidence of. Dan said, smiling and humbly: “Each kid is ending the year with different growth areas. They are aware of what skills and competencies—up to this point—they have demonstrated mastery. So they are choosing the skills they’ve yet to master to focus on at the end of the year.” Rather than Sam—the student from the first story—saying, “what can I do to get an A-,” totally removed from learning, these students knew themselves what to do to improve and designed learning experiences to directly provide evidence. That is authentic, self-directed learning! However, if I were to critique this learning experience, it was that it was still quite siloed in terms of disciplinary thinking. We know students will be operating in a highly diverse, highly global, highly connected, and highly interdisciplinary world. What might learning look like that takes that into account?

The third story illustrates an even higher level of self-directed, interdisciplinary learning. For context: to end White Mountain’s school year last year (as we will this year as well), rather than exams, or major projects, we asked students to curate digital portfolios in which students collected artifacts of their learning that demonstrated their development in our Essential Skills and Habits and then ‘defend’ their portfolio in a Presentation of Learning. The third story is about a White Mountain student who, to protect their privacy, we will call Bob. Bob was a junior with aspirations of going to a prestigious university. When I first explained the idea of a digital portfolio, he said: “why don’t we just take exams to show what we know?” He somewhat begrudgingly set forth to build his portfolio. However, when Bob presented his portfolio to a panel of teachers, he quickly saw the value in the experience. To highlight his development in Critical Thinking (one of our Essential Skills), Bob selected his work from an essay he wrote for his English class, in which he answered: What does America mean to me? In addition to the essay, he created a painting (because he is also a talented artist) to illustrate the ways in which he has grappled with understanding the multiple American identities. It was powerful. He then juxtaposed the type of critical thinking he did for this project with critical thinking he did for finding eigenvalues in his linear algebra class. This form of meta-cognition—in which students are thinking about their thinking—and asked to consider the multiple ways across multiple subjects in which they employ our Essential Skills and Habits develops in students a transferable and multi-disciplinary understanding of how one thinks and how one solves problems. Then, during Bob’s Presentation of Learning, faculty asked probing questions about Bob’s work, examined opportunities for growth, and found every opportunity—of which there were many—to celebrate his work.

Bob, like many students, commented afterward that the digital portfolio and presentation of learning was harder than any exam. Why? They had to evaluate what mattered to them; they had to critically examine a body of their own work, and make choices about what they were most proud of; and in doing so, Bob, as well as the other students, were able to name areas where they have excelled as well as areas that they need to improve in.

Thinking back on the three stories of Sam, Dan, and Bob, I believe they show a progression of student agency.

  • Sam was an amazing student stuck in a traditional system. She was motivated to get good grades, but didn’t see how her learning and her grades were connected. 
  • Dan’s students ended their year knowing what they needed to do in that given class to improve, and had the agency to design learning experiences to do so.
  • Finally, Bob pulled artifacts from across all of his courses to curate a set of exemplary work demonstrating his strengths in our transdisciplinary skills. This is a student who knows himself as a dynamic learner with skills that can be used to solve the myriad and unforeseeable problems that he surely will need to solve.

And in thinking about that, let us return to the urgency of and motivation in doing this work. We need students to have the intellectual and emotional endurance to solve the gnarly problems in front of them. How does competency learning support that need?

By focusing on transferable skills over content, it loosens the constraints regarding what we teach, what students read, and what projects they engage in. It enables schools to unapologetically engage in work outside and alongside the canons and focus on topics instead, such as climate change and anti-racism. Competency learning in and of itself does not do that, but it creates the potential for it.

Part 2 of “Teaching and Assessing What Matters” will examine specific examples from the fall in how teachers have created conditions and learning experiences to explore critical topics such as climate change and race in America.)

If you are interested in reading some of the articles that inform and support this work, as well as peruse some of the organizations helping to lead it, I provided some links below. 



  • The End of Average, Todd Rose
  • 21st Century Skills, Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel
  • Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed, Charles Fadel, Maya Balik, and Bernie Trilling
  • Earth in Mind, David Orr


Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.


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