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Toward a Competency-Based Learning System

Policy workarounds like "seat-time waivers" won't be enough to replace traditional age-based grade level advancement in K-12 with a competency-based system. Rather, according to a new report released by iNacol, it will take a "comprehensive policy redesign" combined with sound technology practices, professional development, and a broadly accepted, student-centered definition of competency-based learning to make that change a reality.

Competency-based learning is a proposed alternative to traditional K-12 advancement that allows students to progress at their own pace as they master the subject matter rather progressing after a fixed interval--a pre-defined amount of "seat time" in the classroom. Also known as "performance-based," "proficiency-based," or "standards-based" learning, it's an approach that, its advocates argue, benefits students of all skill levels, including gifted students, who would be allowed to advance at an accelerated rate, and remedial students, who would be allowed additional preparation before being advanced to the next level.

"With state leadership creating the necessary policy conditions to enable children to progress when they have mastered skills, we will finally be able to overcome the inequities of our current education system," said report co-author and MetisNet Principal Chris Sturgis, in a statement released to coincide with the report.

The report, "Cracking the Code: Synchronizing Policy and Practice for Performance-Based Learning," proposes a framework and offers recommendations aimed at accelerating policy development around competency-based learning, policy that will "loosen the regulatory environment that is handcuffing administrators and educators who are ready to move toward student-centered, competency-based models of learning."

The report highlights inroads that some states have made toward advancing a competency-based system, which have included seat-time waivers, awarded on a case-by-case basis in states like Arizona and Michigan, and credit flexibility, which allows districts individually to implement competency-based learning.

Neither is enough, the report argues.

"We are proposing what amounts to a vital change in current methods of instruction and measurement so that students can move ahead when they demonstrate knowledge," explained Susan Patrick, iNacol president, who co-authored the report. "Unfortunately, many states and school districts are still handcuffed by rigid regulations that prevent them from moving toward the student-centered, performance-based approach. This report offers guidance and practical recommendations for state education policymakers."

Those state recommendations include:

  • A redefinition of awarding credits based on competency;
  • Requiring districts to provide competency-based options;
  • Supporting and training educators and administrators;
  • Building adequate information management systems;
  • Bringing higher education on board with the goals of competency-based efforts in K-12; and
  • Establishing mechanisms for quality control, "including rubrics and formative evaluations, and [providing] supporting tools and resources such as examples of student work at each proficiency level."

The report encourages federal policymakers as well to provide active support for states' efforts: to integrate competency-based learning into major policies, to eliminate seat time requirements, to redefine teacher effectiveness, to provide grants to establish pilot programs, and to provide "political cover" in support of states in early stages of development.

It also identifies six major emerging issues impacting competency-based learning, including the role of technology--in particular data systems--and its ineffective use to date as a tool for advancing education.

According to the report: "To transform the education system so that every student is college and career-ready, technology architectures and student information systems need to be designed with personalized learning plans for every student. Student data systems that can provide a picture of each student's progress toward mastery, based on the learning objectives and competencies, is certainly possible with the technology that is available today. However, even with the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in student information systems, most current state data systems were designed around compliance models for No Child Left Behind and state accountability frameworks based on seat- time--student data plus once-a-year compliance data on high-stakes tests. The problem is that district data systems have been designed in the same silos as compliance policies for reporting: ten elements for student demographic data, attendance based on seat-time, and end-of-year NCLB assessments that don't inform instruction."

The report argues that technology--in particular data systems--should provide:

  • Student access to meaningful data to help them track their progress and establish personalized learning plans;
  • Integration with learning management systems, student information systems, and analytics tools; and
  • Tie-ins between personalized learning plans, formative and adaptive assessments, and e-portfolios, among other systems.

Other emerging issues tackled by the report include financing the system, supports for educators, "student-centered accountability and assessment models," personalized learning plans, and shifting away from the Carnegie unit to adopt competency as the "organizing unit," with Common Core State Standards providing the opening for such a shift.

THE Journal is planning to run a follow-up interview with iNacol's Patrick in the near future focusing on the report and its implications. An executive summary of the "Cracking the Code" report can be downloaded in PDF form. The full report is freely available in PDF form as well. A related report, "It's Not a Matter of Time: Highlights from the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit," can also be accessed on iNacol's site.

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