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Aurora Institute

College and Career Acceleration Opportunities and Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

A recent report from ExcelinEd provides valuable information for states, districts, and schools to promote college and career acceleration opportunities for high school students. Depending on how they are implemented, college and career acceleration strategies can support personalized, competency-based education by improving educational equity, deeper learning, student agency, varied pacing and pathways, and postsecondary attainment.

The report is Accelerating Students from High School to College and Careers: A Playbook for State Policymakers, by Lowell Matthews, Jr. In addition to the state-level focus noted in the title, the report is a valuable resource for schools, districts, and intermediary organizations. It lays out the rationale, benefits, and challenges of several college and career acceleration approaches, recommended action steps for K-12 schools, and dozens of examples from across the country of practices and policies that are already supporting this work. It also discusses principles and strategies for quality, value, equity, educator training, and student advising.

Rationale and Acceleration Strategies

Many jobs require postsecondary credentials that include college courses or degrees, yet the rapidly rising cost of college has become an increasing obstacle to obtaining them. College and career acceleration opportunities provided during high school can help students prepare for postsecondary options and earn course credits that reduce the time and cost to attain needed credentials. The report cites research showing that participating in these opportunities has increased both high school and college graduation rates, such as the findings from a rigorous, lottery-based study of early college high schools shown below.

Early College High School Benefits

The three types of acceleration opportunities described in the report include advanced courses with culminating exams (AP, IB, and AICE), an exam-only approach that validates prior learning (CLEP), and dual enrollment college coursework (dual credit and early college high school). How do these fit with a competency-based approach? CLEP exams are fundamentally competency-based, enabling students to demonstrate competency in a subject regardless of how they attained it. For example, students can demonstrate second-language proficiency in a language spoken in their homes, even if they didn’t take a high-school course in that language.

The extensive content covered in Advanced Placement courses traditionally pulls for a “transmission” or “sit-and-get” approach that maximizes breadth over depth, while competency-based education values deeper learning and development of student agency. This disconnect is not inevitable, however. Researchers at the University of Washington and local teachers collaborated to develop a project-based learning approach to teaching AP courses, called Knowledge in Action (KIA), that’s designed to support deeper learning of content and skills. KIA’s design principles align with findings from the learning sciences, such as “engagement first”—“that initiating learning about a topic through project work will prime students’ interest and create a context for learning content through reading or lecture.”

The group’s randomized, controlled study of Knowledge in Action (Saavedra et al., 2018) had promising initial results in terms of both teacher and student satisfaction but did not address outcomes such as AP exam scores. It also provides qualitative findings that share important considerations for successful implementation. Two of the teachers implementing the work in their classrooms also published a compelling account of its benefits and challenges (Piper and Neufeld-Kaiser, 2018). The study is a valuable starting point for those trying to incorporate project-based learning into Advanced Placement and similar college and career acceleration approaches.

It’s also notable that the College Board itself (the organization that runs the Advanced Placement program) advocates several AP practices that are consistent with competency-based principles. For example, their recent guide that addresses online AP learning during the pandemic shares strategies and resources for formative assessment, varied pacing and learning approaches, student self-direction, and differentiated instruction. Moreover, the AP competencies are more explicit and measurable than much of what is offered in traditional classrooms. None of this guarantees that AP courses will be competency-based, but it’s clear that deliberate effort could move them significantly in that direction.

Co-existing with arguments about deeper learning is the argument that students would benefit from some exposure to the learning approaches that they will encounter in college. AP courses delivered with some traditional elements can serve that purpose, as can the third category of college and career acceleration activity mentioned in the report—dual enrollment and early college coursework. Many competency-based schools offer both AP courses and dual enrollment opportunities, while also prioritizing deeper learning. They are continually navigating these trade-offs and tensions, seeking a balance that transforms antiquated systems while maximizing student readiness for life after high school.

Ensuring Quality and Equity

The report provides “non-negotiables” for college and career acceleration opportunities with regard to quality and value, equity and access, educator training, and student advisement. To ensure quality, they recommend recording and reporting course inputs (e.g., instructional materials, educator qualifications) and outputs (e.g., student course credits or AP exam scores) to inform improvement efforts. Providing value to students also requires ensuring that acceleration opportunities fall into clearly articulated pathways to postsecondary credentials, so students’ credits don’t get “stranded.”

Image: First Time Students Entering College Without College Credit From Dual CreditEquity strategies are essential, because of differential outcomes for traditionally underserved groups such as Black and Latino students, as shown in the figure to the right, as well as students in rural schools. Equity and access strategies include offering a variety of college and career acceleration options at little or no cost to students, an approach that requires investments from states and districts. Eligibility criteria that can limit opportunities for students from underserved groups include relying on single measures such as scores on standardized tests or college placement tests. Using multiple measures that include school grades or portfolios of student work can identify additional students who are prepared for acceleration opportunities.

Educator training and student advising are the two final quality categories. Professional learning can help teachers prepare to lead AP, IB, and dual enrollment opportunities, and some states offer teachers financial incentives for engaging in these preparation activities. Student advising includes ensuring that students are aware of the available acceleration opportunities and leave high school with a clear understanding of how to use the credentials they have earned.

Two comments, in closing, on a report that highlights many valuable considerations relevant to both college/career acceleration and competency-based education. First, the foreword says that “today’s students will need a postsecondary credential in addition to in-demand workplace skills to even begin, much less advance in, mid- or high-wage level careers.” While postsecondary credentials are clearly valuable for many students’ career advancement, it’s also true that career and technical education enables many students to earn ample incomes without postsecondary credentials. The modern economy also enables some students to advance in certain careers through self-study, internships, apprenticeships, and entrepreneurship, and K-12 education systems should support all of these options.

A second, and related point is that the report’s title is Accelerating Students from High School to College and Careers, but the term “college acceleration opportunities” is then used throughout. It’s important to keep in mind the “career” part, as some acceleration opportunities are valuable to students whose plans upon leaving high school don’t include attending college. The report provides a few examples of programs focused on this substantial group of students but notes that these programs are rare and need to be expanded. Clearly a competency-based approach that supports student agency and maximizing intrinsic motivation should help students explore a wide range of postsecondary pathways.

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Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.

Follow @Eliot_Levine