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Aurora Institute

Supporting Competency Education in ESEA Reauthorization

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Maria Worthen

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA

Maria Worthen
Maria Worthen

A new Congress brings new hopes for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA reauthorization provides an important window of opportunity to realign federal policy to support and enable the transition to competency education.


The new Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Senator Lamar Alexander, has indicated his intention to consider an ESEA reauthorization bill in that committee by February. House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman, Representative John Kline, has said it will be a top priority. Both have announced plans to hold hearings in the next month.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the state education chiefs last fall that the new Congress gives new potential to work on a bipartisan basis and that he will be pushing very hard to reauthorize ESEA.

With positive signals coming from House, Senate, and the Education Department leaders about reauthorization, could 2015 be ESEA’s year? Maybe, maybe not—but if you care about the outcome, it’s still essential to weigh in.

The importance of weighing in on ESEA

Here’s why it’s important to get engaged whether or not a reauthorization gets across the finish line: the process of attaining significant policy change, particularly in Congress, tends to be incremental and iterative. The bills considered in the 2013 reauthorization attempt closely resembled those from the 2011 attempt. So, some of the language that was included in the 2013 bill will more than likely be the starting point for this year’s attempt.  The failure of the 2013 bill was, in its own way, a victory for advocates who saw language they supported included in it—they moved the yardstick in a very, very long game.

Competency education: focusing on student learning

Competency education in K-12 education is garnering real interest in the halls of Congress these days, and there is a clear need to ensure that we continue to do all we can to advance equity for students. Folks on all sides of the education debate can agree that we need a new paradigm for how we do accountability and assessments.

Competency education offers a real alternative to the current paradigm, providing a framework for learning that drives towards proficiency to academic standards through personalized learning and differentiated supports for every student.

We define competency education with the following five elements:

  1. Students advance upon mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with development of important skills and dispositions.

While our current system masks true student achievement and gaps with summative data focused solely on proficiency, competency provides real evidence about where students are in their learning trajectory towards proficiency and helps them get to college and career readiness regardless of where they start from and regardless or grade or time. An accountability system aligned to competency education is one that is built around student learning.

How previous ESEA reauthorization bills have addressed competency education

There were two significant nods to competency education in the ESEA reauthorization bill that passed out of the Senate HELP Committee in 2013. First, it included an accountability and assessment pilot that would have allowed a limited number of states to put in place a new performance-based framework to align to competency education in schools statewide. Second, it included some significant general accountability provisions: the bill would have allowed state summative scores comprised of multiple assessments administered throughout the year (which could open the door to students testing when ready). Additionally, the assessments could measure individual student growth and multiple measures could be taken into account for accountability purposes.

Given some lawmakers’ interest in supporting competency education in ESEA, the aforementioned elements in the 2013 bill provide a good starting point to build on this year.

Guiding principles for competency education in ESEA

We are developing specific recommendations for ESEA reauthorization to advance competency education in K-12, and here are some general principles that will guide them. (Check out A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change for some broader thinking on how federal policies can enable competency.):

  • The Federal Government needs to clear the path for states and districts that are ready to implement competency education. There is a mis-alignment between time-based accountability and assessment requirements in current law and competency education. Current summative end of year assessment requirements do not include individual student growth; students cannot take these assessments when they are ready, and the assessments are rarely connected with what students are actually learning. End of year determinations based on these assessment data encourage educators to focus only on the students that are close to making proficiency, rather than incentivize them to focus on the growth and learning of every student. Federal policies should focus on enabling competency by removing barriers for those who are ready to do it, and by creating the right incentives in the accountability system to focus on student growth to proficiency. There are many more barriers to competency education in state policy, which should be dealt with at that level of governance, not by federal policy. The biggest federal policy barriers to competency education are the disincentives created by NCLB’s accountability and assessment requirements. Also, the federal policies regarding educators, notably the Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) provision, puts the wrong focus on time-based teacher preparation, rather than teacher competency to facilitate personalized learning for every student. Congress’ challenge will be to find the right balance between accountability for equity and flexibility to do what’s right for kids.
  • Maintaining the focus on equity is essential. When ESEA was first passed in 1965, Congress’ intent was to improve education for disadvantaged students. While the methods and scope have changed over the years, that intent should remain at the heart of any reauthorizations. Competency education is about equity. It’s about ensuring that every student has the opportunity and support to become college and career ready. ESEA can help enable these practices but it does not (and should not) require them. Regardless of the teaching and learning framework in use in any school or district, there should be shared accountability for student success. A key change with the 2001 NCLB reauthorization was to provide transparency around academic proficiency for every student, disaggregated by subgroup (race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, disability status, English learner status). This provided an important spotlight, revealing shameful achievement gaps and providing accountability for closing those gaps. Disaggregated student data must remain at the heart of ESEA. The question will be how we can get the right systems of assessments in place to measure individual student growth in a way that is connected to teaching and learning. And, how we can rethink an accountability system that incentivizes getting each kid to proficiency via a personalized learning pathway, rather than getting a smaller group of kids to proficiency to make AYP. The current ESEA-required once a year testing actually masks the depth of the achievement gap. If we want to be honest with our students and our citizens, then we need to assess students upon entry in any educational program for the depth of the gaps, and then work to support them to stay or get back on track. This includes working (and assessing) outside of grade levels and doing everything possible to support student growth. Federal policy is squarely in the way by mandating a time-based model of accountability when new models could be creating dramatically better results.
  • Federal funding and flexibility can accelerate development of promising models and practices. While we don’t want to require competency education of anyone, we do want to make it easier for every state and district to support it. In particular, we want to be sure that promising models have room to innovate, evaluate, and replicate. There is a role for pilot programs in ESEA around accountability and assessments systems, supporting educators, and improving the data systems that support personalized learning.

The path forward

In the coming months, House and Senate education committees will be holding hearings and meeting with education advocates to determine the best path forward for ESEA reauthorization. Now is an important window of opportunity to communicate the promise of competency education and the importance of aligning federal policy to support it. iNACOL will be engaging in this process and sharing our recommendations. Voices from the field who have implemented competency education in their states, districts, and schools will be particularly important. If you’d like to share your work and your perspective on ESEA reauthorization, please contact me.

Maria Worthen is Vice President for Federal and State Policy at iNACOL. Prior to joining iNACOL, Maria served as Education Policy Adviser to the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. She also worked at the US Department of Education, serving as Congressional Liaison in the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs, Program Officer in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and Presidential Management Fellow in the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.