Competency-based ed stresses success over seat time

Students must show they grasp a concept fully before they can move on
By: | Issue: November, 2015
October 9, 2015

Mastery trumps class time in competency-based education models now catching on in more U.S. classroomsÑfrom New England to the Midwest to Alaska.

Students must show they grasp a concept fully before they can move on to the next unit. Those who get a low grade or score can’t advance until extra instruction by a teacher reveals that students demonstrate comprehension, says Susan Patrick, president of CEO of iNACOL.

The organization promotes the new approach through its ComptencyWorks initiative and provides support to schools making the transition.

“When we focus on seat time, a student can get A or a D and go on to the next lesson,” Patrick says. “You end up with Swiss cheese-like holes across a student’s learning experience.”

The approach requires a big shift: Rather than scheduling specific lessons on specific days and then moving on, educators must constantly track students’ progress toward various learning goals, Patrick says.

Schools use various benchmarks to measure mastery. Some give students an A, B or a “try again” while others rate learners as “on teacher pace,” “ahead of teacher pace” or “behind teacher pace.”

Still, struggling students won’t get all the time they need to master a concept. Educators will intervene with the extra support needed to get these students to grade level or above, and keep them on track for graduation.

In 2009, only 10 states had given schools the flexibility to use competency as a measure of student progress. As of this year, 42 states allow the approach, Patrick says.

Pilots emerge countrywide

Ohio is offering grants to five schools or districts to experiment with competency-based learning. But New Hampshire has progressed deeper into competency-based learning than have most other states. All high schools in the state are required to transition to the model, though several districts have used Common Core standards for making the transition in all grades.

This school year, four districts are piloting a program in which teachers will create their own competency assessments to replace the SmarterBalanced exams in some grades and subjects.

The districts’ teachers have been collaborating on what competencies look like in various subjects, says Valerie McKenney, superintendent of the Epping School District, one of the systems in the pilot.

Sixth- and seventh-grade English teachers from the four districts spent a day in September developing an assessment. Teachers don’t have to give these tests at a set time, but can assess certain skillsÑinformational writing, for instanceÑwhen the topic is covered in class, she says. “I believe this process has allowed my teachers to become much better assessors of student work and student learning,” McKenney says.

In Souhegan, another New Hampshire pilot districts, high school juniors still take the SmarterBalanced test. But the competency-based assessments seem more relevant to students because the content comes directly from the projects they work on in class every day, says Rob Scully, Souhegan High School principal.

“Our students are consciously sensing the continuityÑthe assessment is an outgrowth of the curriculum, not a vacuum or separate entity,” Scully says. “That coherence makes it very clear what content is going to be learned, and what skills are going to be developed and assessed. Students really value that.”

Students allowed to progress despite low grades only fall farther and farther behind, Patrick says. “When you have inflexible calendars, those gaps get bigger,” he says. “When learning is designed around competency, students can move on when they’re reading and get extra help when they need it.”