Report: Policy Makers Can Reconcile Tensions Between Personalized Learning, Accountability Systems

Bellwether Education Partners has released a report aimed at helping policy makers understand the tensions between personalized learning and school accountability and draw a balance between the sometimes competing interests of the two.

"Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time," according to the report. "By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that, as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures."

Common sticking points between the two, according to "A Path To The Future: Creating Accountability for Personalized Learning," include year-end assessments that only include grade-level content, limited testing windows for those assessments and school ratings that only focus on grade-level standards instead of student improvements over time.

This sticking points arise from the "fundamental tensions" of equity, philosophy and risk, according to the report's authors.

Standards-based accountability proponents are motivated by concern for marginalized students, argues the report, who view the standards as drivers of improvement and increased equity. Personalized learning advocates, on the other hand, argue for maximizing learning for each student.

The difference in philosophy arises because advocates for standards "focus on consistency and common standards as a necessary corrective to a long history of lower expectations for low-income and minority students," according to the report, while personalized learning proponents may see consistency and uniformity as barriers.

Personalized learning adopters are risk takers, according to the report, whereas standards backers are worried that students will fall through the cracks in non-standardized systems, failing to obtain the skills they will need following graduation.

Some policy tensions between the two camps identified by the report include:

  • Standards that are too rigid for personalized learning environments;
  • Standards that are not comprehensive enough for personalized learning, which requires "articulation of specific competencies" and "mapping of the potential sequences in which students can acquire these competencies";
  • Assessments that are not administered to students whenever they are prepared to demonstrate proficiency;
  • Provisions in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that limit customization of assessments; and
  • An inability, owing to policy requirements, to create assessments that demonstrate growth.

To deal with these tensions, the report's authors suggest "limited waivers of accountability policies for schools and districts seeking greater flexibility to implement innovative personalized learning models. States would apply on behalf of districts or schools for a federal waiver from NCLB provisions that they feel inhibit personalized learning. These waivers should be designed specifically to facilitate the growth and evaluation of innovative educational approaches. To do this, federal policymakers should set a high bar for granting waivers. They should also couple waivers with rigorous monitoring in order to evaluate student learning outcomes and identify lessons for other schools and districts."

Other recommendations for policy makers include:

  • Allow real-time testing instead of requiring assessment to take place within narrow windows;
  • Allow states to use adaptive tests for accountability measurements;
  • Incorporate multiple measures to assess school ratings;
  • Increase the weight of individual student growth in accountability regimes;
  • Allow a domain for locally determined measures;
  • Include an appeals process for schools adopting new learning and teaching models;
  • Exempt personalized learning schools from the lowest rating in their first year with a new model; and
  • Highlight proven successful models of personalized learning as approved strategies to improve poorly performing schools.

"Policymakers do not have a time machine to visit the future and bypass the looming tensions between personalized learning and accountability policies," according to the report's conclusion. "But they do have tools at their disposal to help personalized learning and accountability systems not only coexist, but also reinforce and improve each other. Personalized learning cannot grow to scale without evidence that it works and improves student outcomes. Similarly, accountability structures will only work well for schools if they can tap into better ways of measuring students’ learning, like the real-time data collected in personalized models."

The full report is available for free at bellwethereducation.org.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].