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Aurora Institute

What Kids Tell Us About Why Competency Matters

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments, Learn Lessons from the Field

Ask a student about how they learn. You will get many different responses as every child is different.  From a high school student, “I want to have a choice in studying what interests me.” Other kids say, “I want to get extra help from teachers when I need it and move ahead when I am ready, not wait for everyone else.” How  do we give them different pathways to learn?

From a student in Colorado: “What if school could be more like video games? You advance when you master a level, then move to the next level.”

This last student was in a competency-based learning environment – where students can move on when they demonstrate mastery and move at their own pace.  This is how the student communicated “competency education” to adults, “what if school could be more like video games?”

I was moved by a talk by Stephen Heppell from the U.K. as he said, “There should be no limit on how fast and how far a student can go.”

How would we organize education to help students go as fast and as far as possible – to reach their full potential?  How can we support them?

Why do we hold our youth back with a time-based system using a single textbook?  We live in a world where access to online curriculum, resources and courses can personalize education and provide the best teachers regardless of zip code.  There should be no limit to “how fast and how far a student can go”.  And, alternatively, if a student is struggling, they should get the exact help they need and alternative pathways to learn.  They should be able to engage in areas of interest across a curriculum while studying world-class knowledge, academic standards and skills.

This is why I think competency education matters – when students advance upon mastery – student learning is what our education system should be based on, not time.

And, when we think about what the future of learning looks like – every child should be able to have a pathway that works for them, whether using blended/online learning with technology, doing internships in their community and engaging in formal and informal learning – when a student is assessed for “what they know and can do” – they should be able to learn any time, any place and go at their own pace.

I’m dedicated to a student-centered approach.  I believe that our system needs to shift from time to student learning centered, based on mastery.

But to do this, there are “tough issues” we need to address:

1)  Policy issues for moving from K-12 education from seat-time and attendance-based to “competency” education;

2) Accountability – we test on a single grade level at the end of the year; how do we make assessments available in “real time” and have them matter for accountability and measurement?  If a student can race ahead, it isn’t fair to test them on something they did 2 years ago.

3) Designing Competencies – building on academic standards, the State of New Hampshire is an exemplar of defining those standards in terms of designing competencies into “what a student knows and can do” statement and assessing based on student performance (demonstrations).

4) Technology – technology advances can support new modes for accessing content and instruction. Technology isn’t a silver bullet but a blueprint for an enterprise approach to digital content, assessment, platforms, data systems. What are the technologies that support competency education?  What are alternative opportunities using online learning – such as combining options with great teachers teaching online and in-person in blended environments where students have more control over their pace and additional resources for learning, taking courses that are otherwise not available or let kids advance and earn college credit through dual enrollment.

5)  Assessment — why are we stuck in an “assessment system” box in the United States?  Let’s think about “systems of assessments” (both words plural with an “s”) – where we have multiple forms of assessment that give us information on a student’s progress through learning progressions.  For example, let’s collect data from:

  •  adaptive assessments on entry to show us existing gaps and address the gaps in learning;
  • formative assessments used throughout the learning process to monitor student progress and provide information for intervention and immediate support;
  • performance-based assessments where students demonstrate through a “performance”.  Students use multiple methods – oral, written, work products, projects, etc. – to demonstrate their mastery of the material. E-portfolio and other data is collected on how a student demonstrated mastery; and,
  • summative assessments for validating or moderating classroom based assessment, and monitors progress from the ground up.

Why can’t we use summative assessments that are more modular, offered at the time a student is ready throughout the year, in real-time and used for moderating purposes?

For crying out loud, why is the only time a summative assessment can take place the month of May?  Is that how a student learns?

So, the calendar and time have us locked into a system that doesn’t fit how students learn.  Let’s work on moving toward competency education from a time-based education system so that we can ensure there is “no limit to how fast and how far” a student can learn and learning can be “like video games” where you get assessed on the levels as you are progressing in real time.  The technology exists to support it.

What can we do to help the kids today? What are the ways that your school, district and state are increasing responsiveness and flexibility in the use of assessments?