It is not uncommon for educational terms to be introduced without being concretely defined. Competencies and performance standards are two such terms, first used by business and industry, that are now used by educational professionals to help define and establish curriculum goals. There is a strong relationship between these two concepts but they do not mean the same thing.
What is a Competency?
Competencies are traits or characteristics, such as knowledge, skills, behaviors or abilities, needed to complete a task. These are progressive in nature and build on each other as a student completes more complex assignments. One competency is a small part of the overall skill set needed to successfully complete a given assignment and is assessed in a qualitative manner based on the final product.
Each competency is assessed from a novice, or beginner level through outstanding, or advanced. A student is assessed not only on multiple competencies for one assignment but should encounter a same or similar competency across multiple competencies. Multiple exposure to the same competency allows students to improve their individual skills and learn to apply that skill in a variety of situations.
What is a Performance Standard?
Performance standards state what is expected from a student to show success on an assignment. For example, a teacher could state that all students are expected to earn 80% or higher on an upcoming quiz or be required to attend a study session and then retake it. This sets an expectation of performance to a certain percentage of correct answers to show understanding of the material.
The connection between performance standards and competencies is that the performance standard is the level students are expected to achieve for each competency. For example, if a competency is assessed as either Novice, Basic, Proficient or Advanced the performance standard could be that students are expected to achieve a rank of Proficient or higher.
Using Competencies and Performance Standards in a Lesson
Frequently competencies are determined when creating a lesson or unit plan. Sometimes these are specific to the grade level and subject, sometimes they could include school-wide competencies. Once the specific competencies and their descriptions for levels of mastery, or success, are determined a performance standard can be set. Contrarily, if a school sets the performance standard for all assessments, such as stating all students should be proficient or higher, the competencies can be written to reflect the approach to and achievement of the performance standard.
Students need to know the performance standard to which they are being held at the start of each assignment. This provides them a goal by knowing what is expected. Providing this with a copy of the competency rubric or a list of desired outcomes also gives students a way to assess themselves as they complete the assignment.
Competencies and performance standards are inherently related. Whereas a competency states several levels of understanding and skill demonstration the performance standard is which one of these levels shows the level of achievement desired from the students.