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Aurora Institute

A Higher Education Journey Toward Standards/Competency-Based Principles

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Randy Peters

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA, Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Randy Peters
Randy Peters

In our work with school administrators who are leading innovative standards or competency-based initiatives, we are often reminded by our PK-12 colleagues that they (and their stakeholders) tend to view colleges and universities as hindrances or barriers to implementation rather than partners. In light of this feedback and our own experiences in the profession, we have felt compelled to explore some standards/competency-based strategies in our program area at Drake University. It has been a gradual process, informed by the inclusion of reform strategies that we’ve begun teaching in our education leadership classes and, later, explored in our research, and attempted in varying degrees in our own pedagogy, as well.

First, we began advocating with our grad students/aspiring administrators for the development of professional learning communities, such as those described by DuFour and Marzano in their book, Leaders of Learning (although we’ve felt that any movement toward a more collaborative, empowered, and shared leadership model would be an improvement over what has been in place historically). In introducing this model, the basic professional learning community questions (What is it we want our students to know? How will we know if they are learning? How will we respond when they aren’t learning? How will we enrich/extend learning for students who are proficient?) led to some conclusions that have greatly influenced our practice.

With the emergence of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and their enhanced emphasis on 21st century skills, what we wanted our students to know and be accountable for became clearer than it had perhaps ever been. However, in working with teachers and administrators from across our state, it became evident that, while much work had been done to align local curricula with the CCSS, the methods of accurately assessing, grading, and communicating students’ progress toward these learning targets remained woefully stuck in practices of the past, largely without any research base. Further, it became obvious, the more we examined the literature and engaged with students and teachers, that these practices were not just benign vestiges, but were actually counterproductive to the intrinsic motivation to learn and efforts to diminish the achievement gap.

As such, we set out to study early adopters and exemplars of grading and assessment that were tied to progress toward the standards, and thus were more conducive to learning for learning’s sake, or student ownership of learning (and consistent with Dweck’s growth mindset). One of our articles based on case studies of these early adopters can be found here.

During our interactions with school personnel in these districts, we were repeatedly confronted with a couple of issues: 1) Schools and districts attempting to innovate with standards or competency-based models viewed higher ed admissions and financial aid practices as significant deterrents to such efforts, if for no other reason than that parents and community members believed that college environments were generally hostile to students coming from these schools; and 2) School administrators were finding a dearth of aspiring educators and educational leaders with any prior training or background in standards or competency-based practice.

In observing and discussing the standards-based schools, it then became apparent that assessing and grading in this manner led to a logical next set of questions. The questions ran along the lines of, “What do we do when it becomes clear that some students need additional time and assistance to demonstrate proficiency of required standards and others can reasonably demonstrate proficiency, or even mastery, well before the conclusion of an academic year (or, in some cases, prior to the start of an academic year)?” This is where my own interest in competency-based models began, and it was a conveniently synchronous occurrence that Iowa’s CBE collaborative was just getting off the ground at that time, and its director was kind enough to invite me to participate as one of the representatives from institutions of higher education.

So, the essence of how we’ve responded so far to these issues in Drake’s School of Education includes the following:

  1. We have begun transitioning to a standards-referenced learning and assessment model in our Educational Leadership program. In a sense, this could actually be characterized as competency-based, since the professional standards for which students are accountable are comprehensive, cross-discipline, and involve a combination of knowledge, dispositions, and skills. However, we have not yet sought permission to enter into any agreements in which students advance upon mastery. We have our next accreditation coming up in 2016, and I suspect we will at least address this prospect with our administration and the accreditation team at that time.
  2. We have brought in nationally recognized speakers, and facilitated faculty conversations surrounding standards and competency-based models. These conversations have had the involvement of everyone from junior faculty to administrators, and have been well received.
  3. We have begun to survey college and university admissions offices, to determine their attitudes, policies, and practices toward alternative transcripts/applications (from schools employing standards, competency, or project-based models, etc.). This should help to either dispel or reinforce the perception that colleges’ policies and practices are obstacles to such models.
  4. One of our colleagues in the teacher preparation program at Drake has also adopted standards-based principles, and we are conducting research using student voice (from interviews and focus groups with his students) to assess differences in college student learning experiences in a classroom using standards-based grading and assessment.
  5. We also are completing an article based on similar student survey data from a high school in the state that was an early adopter of standards-based grading (SBG) at the secondary level.
  6. Finally, we have collaborated extensively with districts that are implementing standards-based and competency-based models.

Much of this has mirrored the work being done by the higher education reps on the Iowa CBE Collaborative, who have accepted the charge to explore the feasibility of:

  1. Working with PK-12 CBE early adopters to ensure smooth transitions from PK12 to postsecondary.
  2. Preparing educators for CBE and SBG environments.
  3. Providing standards/competency-based environments for postsecondary students.

In our preliminary discussions, it was brought up that another worthwhile contribution would be to assist PK-12 partners with research collaborations, research to practice data, and literature reviews, as well as to lend our respective areas of expertise that are relevant to districts’ needs. Our work groups will also help develop goals, actions steps, responsibilities/necessary supports, evidence/artifacts, and recommendations for change in higher education practice. We also hope to become better connected to the national CBE work being done in higher ed.

To guide this work, the following are some questions we will be discussing:

  1. In light of what you have heard from CBE pilot districts regarding their successes, challenges, and lingering questions/concerns, how can we, and our institutions, become catalysts in supporting their efforts? (Also, what barriers to broader implementation do you see?) 
  2. Most secondary schools are still using traditional practices. If we continue to use these practices to assess, grade and report while we’re using innovative methods for teaching and learning, what are likely to be the consequences? To what extent are changes in assessment models likely to be key leverage points in effecting change? 
  3. A true student-centered system should develop self-efficacy/agency, engagement, ownership of learning, and intrinsic motivation. It’s rare to see most or all kids demonstrating these qualities across most/all of their schooling. What actions need to be identified and leveraged in order to develop these types of environments? 
  4. What are the gaps between knowledge, skills, and dispositions that new teachers bring into K12 environments and those that are needed to advance success in competency-based initiatives? How can and should these gaps be addressed? 
  5. What are the gaps between knowledge, skills, and dispositions being used in our college and university classrooms and those that are needed to advance success in competency-based initiatives? How can and should these gaps be addressed? 
  6. What successes and advancements have you seen in your institution’s knowledge, dispositions, and use of principles related to competency-based education? How might these be expanded or further developed? 
  7. What questions, reservations, and concerns do you have about competency-based education models? How might these be addressed or mitigated?

Randy Peters joined the Drake faculty in 2011, teaching graduate classes in the education leadership department in the School of Education. Prior to instructing at Drake, Randy gained extensive administrative leadership experience, working at Seattle University and Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Randy’s most recent research has focused primarily on standard-based grading and school and community wellness initiatives.