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Aurora Institute

Streamlining the Transition between K12 and Higher Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA

library-techThis article, the third in a series on competency education in K12 and higher education, seeks to outline, but certainly not resolve, a number of issues related to how students make the transition from K12 to college in a CBE world and how the educational institutions (districts, high schools, colleges, and universities) will need to relate to each other.

College Application Process

There is one question that will always arise in conversations with parents, guardians, and students, especially those with upper incomes and upper GPAs: How will competency-based education affect my ability to go to and compete for college? There are several parts to this answer, and we are making some progress on addressing them all.

1. Will Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) Accept Students: Thanks to the extraordinary leadership of the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC), we now have 68 colleges and universities, including several elite schools, that have signed the Collegiate Pledge to accept proficiency-based transcripts and to commit to students not being disadvantaged by them. The website lists all the institutions of higher education (IHE) that have signed on, and the pledge is available for other organizations to use if they want to catalyze their region. Certainly, all IHE with CBE programs should just sign the pledge and send it on over to NESSC.

2. Will Students in CBE Schools Be as Competitive?: This is such a complicated question that it deserves an entire article (or two) on its own. At this point, I believe that students will be as competitive or more so had their school continued to be based on a traditional, time-based model. Of course, if the entire state or country is competency-based, then any advantage to students is lost, but much is gained for communities, as the bar is raised from getting an “A” to demonstrating you can apply the skills. Below is a bit of my thinking on this issue.

a. There is no data so far (and I watch for it carefully) that students at CBE schools are doing worse based on current assessments and measures than when the school was traditional. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that they will be less competitive.

b. When I visit high schools, there is always a trickle and sometimes a stream of commentary from high-achieving students saying that the competency-based model is harder because they actually have to master everything and be able to apply it. Most will say that memorizing for tests is much easier. (There is a great line in a trailer for Most Likely to Succeed where a teacher asks a student, “Would you rather learn or take the test?” And she, with more than a bit of attitude, replies “Take the test.”) That suggests to me that students in competency-based school will be more competitive than they might have been otherwise. This should show up in the college tests, their personal essays, and a richer résumé of extended learning,  internships, projects, or capstones.

However, as the focus moves from being smart to being a good learner, we also need to be prepared for emotional pushback if students become afraid that they might not be one of the “smartest.” Intervening to help previously high-achieving students understand the growth mindset is going to be an important step as part of their identity as the “smart kid” might unravel. However, based on my discussions with high GPA students, as long as the rules of the game are fair, transparent, and consistent, this group of kids, highly extrinsically motivated, will adjust to any set of rules.

c. Most districts and schools have not yet opened up the ceiling. Students should be able to advance beyond grade level in a CBE model, yet we want to guard against “faster is better,” so it is important to have opportunities along the way for students to go deeper or faster. There are a few examples of districts allowing students to advance to the next grade level even if it is in another school (e.g., from eighth to ninth grade), but it has not become routine yet. From what I can tell, it works best if the units of courses have been placed online so that students can simply keep working. Teachers will have to be familiar with the discipline and curriculum in the higher levels and/or students have to have access to teachers who do. Within a school, it is possible to simply have students participate in the more advanced class. The topic of advancing into college level is discussed below.  

d. If we follow the logic of CBE, more students will be more ready for college. If we are teaching habits of work, emphasizing higher order skills, and making sure students have developed the prerequisite skills needed to do the grade level skills, they simply have to build a stronger foundation for lifelong learning. These are three big “ifs,” and not all CBE schools are doing all three. (For example, I’m not convinced at all that scaffolding is the same as building prerequisite skills. It seems to serve an entirely different purpose.) So far, we are only seeing evidence that students are doing better in those models that are very intentional about their strategy to “meet students where they are.”

The point is, competition may actually increase if we are able to make progress toward greater equity. We should never, ever be afraid of that. With pressure for more types of post-secondary options, we should see more innovations in higher education, more products, more programs. Our communities and countries can only benefit in better education even if it is just going to make it harder for fake news to tear away at our democracy.

Calibrating Proficiency-Based Diploma with College Entrance

There are an entirely different set of questions related to the intersection of competency education between K12 and IHE that we have barely started to explore – alignment and calibration. The issues raised in the section are above all based on CBE high schools within the current policies, practices, and dynamics of institutions of higher education that serve graduating high school graduates. But what happens if we start to expect that all IHE be clear about performance levels, at least in the freshmen year or Level 13, even if they aren’t competency-based?

1. What is a proficiency-based diploma going to really mean in terms of access to college? To create a fair and transparent system, students need to know what the diploma means. I would argue that at a minimum it should be aligned with access to community college courses without remediation. With proficiency-based transcripts, students should be able to show that they have met this minimum level as well as a demonstration of mastery at more advanced levels. We can hope that all community colleges would agree to a level of proficiency for entrance but, personally, I’m doubtful about that. We need a structure or language that illustrations what level community colleges or any college, for that matter actually requires without remediation. Thus, we would see minimum expectations for diplomas possibly complemented by some seal that indicates performance level, as described below.

2. How can students understand other IHE expectations? Right now, the space between high school and the range of expectations for freshman courses across all of IHE is very, very murky. Students may be accepted but then find they have to take remediation (with which the prospect of completion declines). What information might help students be crystal clear on what they need to know and be able to do to transfer directly into freshmen courses without remediation?  

Although I’m sure there are other ways to do it, my best thinking to date is that we need to clarify the transition zone between high school and freshmen courses so that there is a way to make transparent the level any college uses for freshmen courses. Let’s call it Level 13a, Level 13b, and so forth. I’m guessing about five sub-levels will suffice. Thus, a student focusing on being accepted into a college with freshmen courses set at Level 13e, let’s say Harvard or Stanford, would be able to see sample work of entry level freshmen in reading, math, science, and social studies courses. They would then be able to spend their senior year building up to those skills if they aren’t there yet.  

Illinois is taking a baby step toward this in their recent efforts. HB 5729 enables local education agencies to establish the math competencies required to enter credit-bearing courses in college through a panel that includes IHE, employers, and K12. In other words, they are going to calibrate what it means to be college-ready in math. However, given that the market of IHE is organized around students with a wide range of skills and interests, I think we still need to make explicit the range of expectations and create language so it can become discussable. Obscurity only leads to inequity.

New Haven School District also started a K12-IHE calibration with English faculty from local colleges and AP English teachers reviewing student work to calibrate their understanding of what it means to be college-ready.

3. How can fast track programs be enhanced within a competency-based structure? There are a number of policies, programs, and models that streamline the transition from high school to college and allow students to begin to build college credits while in high school (i.e., they are on a fast track). Early college, Tech Prep, dual or concurrent enrollment, and Advanced Placement are all options. But what happens if the college isn’t competency-based? My understanding is that at this point, most CBE high schools with dual enrollment courses simply use the traditional assessment and grading system of the college.

However, at University of Maine – Presque Isle, there is a calibration process with high schools so that the dual enrollment courses are in fact competency-based. This is certainly a model we should all be looking at, as it will help us understand what Fast Track programs can look like in a competency-based world. I would think that if the high school and college were competency-based, early college high schools, dual enrollment, and Tech Prep would all be enhanced. AP is a different model since the College Board manages the calibration (i.e., sets the bar for the instruction, assessment, and scoring to be at a college level).

Yet, colleges are not always reliable partners in fast track programs, with some not accepting fast track credits. As Education Week found, “The patchwork of increasingly fluid policies, often varying within departments in a college, leaves many students and parents uncertain about how advanced coursework will pay off and pushing for greater transparency.”

This is an area ripe for policy conversations. However, again, we need a structure to make transparent the different expectations for what Level 13 means.

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I know that this is not an all-inclusive list of topics we need to think about in terms of the transition between K12 and higher education. Please share your ideas and questions – it really helps us during our site visits and interviews to be thinking about your questions.

The final article in this series will look at how C-BEN has defined design elements and how they may or may not be applicable to the K12 system.