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Aurora Institute

Illinois Launches Competency Education Pilot Program

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones

Tony Smith, State Superintendent, Illinois

Illinois keeps surprising me. First, in July they passed the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act, which included a competency-based pilot (innovation space without any additional funding) as well as an effort to begin the calibration process between graduation expectations in mathematics and freshman-year mathematics in higher education. Then a second surprise. Within five months of the new legislation, they have launched the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program for twelve districts to “replace high school graduation course requirements with a competency-based learning system.”

The pilot only focuses on grades 9-12, although districts will quickly learn that they are going to want a full district system – otherwise there is a constant flow of students with big gaps in their learning as students in the earlier years are passed on without ensuring they are mastering the fundamentals.

The competency-based learning systems must have the following elements:

  • Demonstrate mastery of all required competencies to earn credit.
  • Demonstrate mastery of adaptive competencies (foundational skills needed for success in college, careers, and life, such as, but not limited to, work ethic, professionalism, communication, collaboration and interpersonal skills, and problem-solving) defined by the school district, in addition to academic competencies.
  • Advance once they have demonstrated mastery.
  • Receive more time and personalized instruction, if needed, to demonstrate mastery.
  • Have the ability to attain advanced postsecondary education and career-related competencies beyond those needed for graduation.
  • Be assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery, usually requiring application of knowledge.
  • Be able to earn credit toward graduation requirements in ways other than traditional coursework, including learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom setting, such as supervised career development experiences.

I particularly like how they emphasized “more time and personalized instruction, if needed, to demonstrate mastery.” Districts get off on the wrong foot when they only focus on flexible time and pacing. It’s what happens during that additional time that matters.

Illinois also understands that competency-based education is the foundation for greater personalization and allowing students to develop strengths that may be beyond the academic domains emphasized by accountability exams. In their press release, State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith states, “We know our students are coming into high school with so many assets and experiences that we haven’t figured out how to access. This new opportunity to work on competency-based learning will help students share those strengths and get more specific support where they need it. Illinois is taking a giant leap forward in meeting our students where they are and better preparing them for the future. The Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program provides schools and districts the opportunity not only to adapt classroom instruction to the individual student but to personalize each student’s entire pathway through high school. This pilot encourages community partnerships and customized learning to support individual students’ interests and needs. ISBE hopes to learn from the pilot about the potential of competency-based learning to improve student outcomes on a large scale.”

Here is the link to the application online. I’m looking forward to how the Illinois State Board of Education will provide supports to districts, including an “online library of research, pilot program implementation plans, and models to support future replication, as well as technical assistance and networking opportunities to districts participating in the pilot.”

Funders, take note. This may be an opportunity to make investments to support the districts, as they will all be participating because they think competency education will lead to better educational experiences for students, not because of funding incentives.

For more information on Illinois see Achieve’s Competency-Based Policies and Pathways: Lessons from Colorado and Illinois.

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