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Aurora Institute

Buyers Beware

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

CautionI am getting a bit frustrated with information management systems that claim to be competency-based. They describe themselves in a number of ways – as LMS and as tracking systems – and I’m sure the names will continue to develop as we get a better grasp on the necessary functionality.

I’ve been spending time over the past year watching demos, visiting vendor booths, and trying to be open-minded about their full functionality. Most of the time I’ve been disappointed.

So before you even spend time looking at a system, ask these questions:

Can it easily show the standards students are working on that may be different than those specifically in the age-based grade level? This is problem number one – most of the systems I have seen continue to use courses as the organizing structure. They load up the course with the grade-level standards, usually from Common Core,  for eighth grade math or ninth grade ELA. But what if a student is working on sixth grade math skills or is advancing to eleventh grade writing? There needs to be a way, an easy way, to show where students are on their learning continuum and for teachers and students to get “credit” for mastering skills even if it isn’t in the grade-level standards. One of the products drawing in a lot of funding requires teachers to add all the standards into their course if they have students working at different levels as an extra, burdensome step. This is one of the core problems of the traditional system – focusing on the curriculum instead of the students. You do not want to institutionalize this with your new information system.

Can I get a student profile that shows me how a student is advancing in all of the disciplines? When a system is teacher-centric, it only focuses on what a teacher needs to know. If it is going to be student-centric, then you should be able to customize student profiles that help students, parents, and advisors reflect on pace and progress.

What is the philosophy about assessing student learning? There is a huge difference between assessing, determining student learning and providing feedback, and assessments. Many of these systems want to make it easy for teachers to track student assessments, which is obviously a great thing. However, in doing so, it can easily become checklists on steroids. In competency-based learning, you want to make sure that your system is supporting your teachers in building their assessment literacy, including understanding why students aren’t learning something and strategies for helping them get to that new insight. You also want to make sure the information system that supports assessments is going to be helpful to you in performance tasks and assessments, not just quizzes and tests.

No system is going to be perfect right now because we are all learning about what we need. However, do not let any vendor describe themselves to you as competency-based without asking in what way are they competency-based. If they are still organizing around courses rather than the student, all they are doing is building a better factory model.

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