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Aurora Institute

A Tale of Two States

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

taleoftwostates-mapI had a quick conversation with Sal Khan last month that really highlighted the importance of the questions, What do we think competency is? and How do we measure it?

The different ways we think about competency and what we want for our students is one of the underlying issues causing confusion in the field. It also has powerful implications for whether we are going to help students develop higher order/deeper learning skills.

If you think that competency education is completing a course of study on adaptive software (FYI – this doesn’t meet the field’s working definition) or getting a certain score on the SAT, you will make different design choices than if you think competency is being able to apply skills in new contexts.  Another way to think about this is using the knowledge taxonomies: If you think competency is at Level 2 Comprehension, the way you design your schools is really different than if you set it in general at Level 3 Analysis or Level 4 Knowledge Utilization. So if we are talking about proficiency-based diplomas and competency-based credits — How do we know when a student is competent?

This issue jumped out when I saw that New Mexico is implementing an Alternative Demonstration of Competency for students who can’t pass the high school exit exam. New Mexico is on a slow road (think snail) to personalized, blended, and competency education, so I was curious to know how the State was thinking about competency (click here for overview of policies).  Usually, I wouldn’t refer to exit exams within the realm of competency education because they have nothing to do with transparency of learning progressions, empowering students to own their own education, providing adequate supports and time, and making sure students reach proficiency each step of the way. My personal analysis is that high school graduation exit exams are policy hammers used by state government to get schools to do better by kids, but in fact, they knock kids down as they try to enter adulthood without a diploma.  In reading the details of the Alternative Demonstration of Competency, however, it sounded so much like Colorado’s new proficiency-based diploma policy and its emphasis on cut scores that I thought it best to highlight it here. Perhaps New Mexico is backing its way into competency education?

New Mexico’s policy is that students have to complete 23 credits AND pass the high school exit exam (their standards-based assessments) OR get one of the following:

  • Achieve a 3 on an Advanced Placement (AP) exam
  • Achieve College Readiness benchmark scores on any of four content areas of the ACT:
    • English Composition – 18
    • Social Sciences (Reading) – 21
    • College Algebra (Mathematics) – 22
    • Biology (Science) – 24
  • Achieve College Readiness benchmark scores on any of four content areas of the ACT PLAN:
    • English Composition- 15)
    • Social Sciences (Reading) – 17
    • College Algebra (Mathematics) – 19
    • Biology (Science) – 21
  • Achieve College Readiness benchmark scores on any of three content areas of the PSAT:
    • Reading (50)
    • Mathematics (50)
    • Writing (49)
  • Achieve  College Readiness benchmark scores on any of three content areas of the SAT:
    • Reading (450)
    • Mathematics (450)
    • Writing (450)
  • Achieve College Readiness benchmark scores on any of four content areas of the Accuplacer:
    • Reading (85)
    • Writing (109)
    • Elementary Algebra (117)
    • College Mathematics (115)
  • Achieve a College Readiness benchmark score on any of six areas of study from an authorized International Baccalaureate curriculum:
    • Literature (Language A) (4)
    • Language B (4)
    • Individuals & Society (4)
    • Experimental Science (4)
    • Mathematics (4)
    • Arts (4)
  • Achieve the following score on the COMPASS Test:
    • Math (52)
    • Reading (88)
    • Writing Skills (77)

In 2013, NM’s Public Education Department added the option of achieving a 4 on ACT’s Work Keys and the following scores on TABE:

  • Reading (518)
  • Math (506)
  • Language (524)

New Mexico claims that a “student must remain at the center of this effort” but is requiring students to fail New Mexico’s HSGA three times in reading and math and twice in science before using the ADC. That strikes me as the opposite of student-centered. Why not just offer these exams, most of which are meaningful to accessing college, as alternatives?

By comparison, Colorado has been investing in innovation, reshaping policies to enable online and personalized learning. Colorado’s policy for proficiency-based high school diploma emphasizes 21st-century skills such as critical thinking and reasoning, information literacy, collaboration, self‐direction, and invention. Yet, its policy looks very similar to New Mexico’s ADC policy, with some variation. New Mexico has higher expectations for ACT’s math and SAT’s English, but Colorado’s expectation for math in SAT is a tad higher. Colorado doesn’t include TABE and Work Keys but includes a number of other certifications. Furthermore, Colorado skips the wasteful step(s) of having students repeatedly fail the state exams before recognizing students as proficient.

So here are two states, with very different starting points, coming to the same state policy, raising the question: Are we as a nation going to create proficiency-based diplomas and college/career readiness by examination alone?  And if so, why can’t we use the tests that are meaningful to students such as SAT, ACT and Accuplacer instead of exams created to leverage school improvement?