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Aurora Institute

A Better Way Forward for Competency-Based Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Joe DiMartino

Issue(s): State Policy, Base Learning on Mastery Not Seat Time, Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

pencilsThis post originally appeared at New Profit on September 29, 2016. 

Over two decades ago, I served as an educational advocate for the State of Rhode Island. It was my charge to act as the parent for a caseload of about 80 youth who were wards of the State that either identified or were suspected of having special educational needs. My caseload was very diverse. Students had serious learning disabilities and/or behavioral issues. As wards of the State most were living in poverty and the majority came from what are often called minority groups. Despite the wide array of challenges, I ensured that the adolescents in my caseload all earned, and were granted, their high school diploma. This, despite the fact that these students often had not learned the things our society expects of a high school graduate. How was this possible?

The reliance on seat time for awarding course credit allows for any student who passes a class that meets for the required 120 hours of instruction to earn credit toward graduation. The 120-hour requirement was established by the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching over a century ago and still governs what a high school diploma entails in nearly every state in the union. Typically, students are required to pass 20-28 courses in order to earn their high school diploma. As an advocate for youth in State care, I made sure that schools were paying attention to each student’s transcript and awarding him/her the credits earned through sitting in class.

Did I do these students more harm than good? Over the past 20 years, I have pondered that question often. I was complicit in sending adolescents out into society with a diploma that didn’t necessarily reflect whether they had mastered the requisite education to become functioning adults in a democratic society. Despite my well-meaning advocacy, was I setting them up for failure?

Thanks in large part to my experience as an educational advocate I have embraced replacing the Carnegie unit with a proficiency or competency-based graduation requirement; an approach where course credit, and therefore graduation, is tied to demonstrating mastery of competencies. In 2005, New Hampshire became the first state in the nation to mandate that a high school diploma would require mastery rather than seat time.

Good things have been happening in New Hampshire for many students. However, concerns remain that the competency-based education movement has not shown evidence that it will work for complex learners. Students who learn differently or cannot demonstrate their learning in traditional ways pose a challenge that the State continues to wrestle with. The basic challenge is providing a variety of assessment and accountability measures that are personalized and ensuring that we have avenues for all types of learners to demonstrate mastery without compromising on standards.

Can the competency-based education movement thrive without addressing the issue of how it can be effectively applied for complex learners? I suspect not. I see peril for the competency movement if we cannot come up with an appropriate method to deal with this issue. A typical policy response to the perceived need to increase the rigor demonstrated by a high school graduate has been to require students to pass a high-stakes exam. This clearly does not serve students who cannot demonstrate their learning in traditional ways. A large number of students will simply never receive their diploma. Or, if a student fails the original exam, he/she gets to take a make-up exam with lower standards.

Continuing with a “batch processing” approach hinged on high-stakes exams will leave us with two disappointing choices. One choice is to resign ourselves to a reality where a large percentage of our youth won’t earn a diploma, or a second choice is to lower graduation standards to such a level that a diploma is meaningless for many students.

There has to be a better way.

Stephen Jay Gould in Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections on Natural History suggested:

“We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.”

By taking a “batch processing” approach to assessment (regardless of the type of assessment) are we assuming that all students must demonstrate their learning in the same way? Why must students proficient in the arts meet the same graduation requirements, demonstrated in the same way, as students pursuing the sciences? Certainly, their worldview is different and it will affect the optimal method of demonstrating mastery. How can we offer flexibility without compromising rigor?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in this endeavor is that the adults that are presently the central architects of the education system in this country—policy-makers, researchers, and educators, among others–have perspectives and priorities as diverse as Gould suggests. Policy-makers don’t often pay much attention to research or practice when enacting policy, and are often more concerned with efficiency than with quality and depth of education. Researchers often have a worldview that is guided by data and therefore governed by concrete formulas. They tend to have little regard for policy or practice; validity and reliability are at the heart of what matters. Teacher self-evaluation of practice certainly doesn’t meet most researcher’s threshold of valid and reliable data. Likewise, practitioners sometimes show little regard for either policy or research and most often care simply about what other practitioners are doing. Asked to implement a new strategy, many teachers are likely to ask, “Where can I see a classroom or school that is implementing it?”

The perceptions of reality of the three groups appear so divergent that if we were to create a Venn diagram that represents the worldview of each of them it would include three circles that don’t overlap at all! It seems to me that finding ways for each group to expand their worldview so that an intersection of these three viewpoints arises is at the heart of bringing competency-based education to all learners.

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Joe DiMartino is President and Founder of the Center for Secondary School Redesign.