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DLN Report Card: Competency-based Learning in Iowa

• Erin Lockett

Last month, ExcelinEd’s Digital Learning Now initiative released the 2014 Digital Learning Report Card.

We have been sharing state stories from the Report Card on the EdFly Blog to highlight progress and share success stories from individual states across the nation. These stories are based on interviews with policymakers and stakeholders and are published in collaboration between Digital Learning Now and Getting Smart.

Today, we look at the final state in this series: Iowa.

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The goal of a student in high school chemistry should be to learn chemistry and master what the course has to offer. While that may seem like a common-sense goal for a class, it is anything but ordinary.

For most public education systems, the goal of student learning is surpassed by seat-time requirements. All students move at the same pace over a designated period of time, regardless of how long it actually takes a student to master the class material. An advanced student has to slow down, and a struggling student has to keep up.

For years, this system oriented on seat time has forced students to adapt to a pre-determined learning schedule. But now states are taking a new approach to allow students to progress at a flexible pace so they can advance once they have mastered the material. This is exactly what is happening in Iowa.

The Hawkeye State is on a mission to transform education for its students into a fully competency-based model. In 2013, Iowa passed House File 215. This comprehensive education reform legislation includes support for competency-based education and a state online learning initiative, Iowa Learning Online.

Laying the Groundwork. While still early in the implementation process (year two of funding for what is designed as a five-year initiative), HF 215 is laying the groundwork for a future where all Iowa students are able to learn at their own pace.

To help with implementation and overall success, the legislation established the Iowa Competency-Based Education (CBE) Collaborative. The Iowa CBE Collaborative includes 10 districts working together to advance a CBE best practices framework. Director of the Iowa Department of Education, "A group representing these districts is investigating what it looks like to transform Iowa education to be completely competency-based.Dr. Brad Buck, explained that these districts are figuring out what it will look like to transform Iowa’s education system into a completely competency-based system. He added, “We couldn’t do it without the regional education agencies, which provide for a hub for the learning and engaging.”

HF 215 also continues funding for Iowa Learning Online. Local districts partner with this supplemental online program to award their students credits earned upon successful completion of online courses. The Iowa CBE Collaborative is also focused on the intersection of CBE and online learning and how they work together.

One example can be found in Spirit Lake, where a public school is integrating competency-based learning and technology with a project-based, personalized ninth-grade academy. Other schools are also paving the way by adjusting standards to reflect students’ mastery of courses.

Early Signs Show Success. In Muscatine, for example, Iowa’s Competency-based Instruction Task Force reported that in 2013, “researchers looked at grades, the distribution of students based on where they were on learning progressions (remediation, intensive interventions and acceleration) and opinions of teachers. The district and community were increasingly concerned about a graduation rate that fluctuated below the state average. Following implementation of the [competency-based education] pilot projects, zero percent of students earned Ds or Fs in competency-based education classrooms, compared to 38 percent of all students in the 2011-12 school year.”

Through HF 215, Iowa created a thoughtful and intentional plan to create a competency-based system with willing participants. Dr. Buck foresees current examples of successful proficiency-based learning spreading to impact all students in Iowa in the near future, and we certainly look forwarding to seeing that growth.

Previously published stories in this series include ArizonaFlorida, LouisianaMichiganOhio, TexasUtah and West Virginia. To learn more about how states are advancing personalized digital learning, check out the 2014 Digital Learning Report Card.

About the author

Erin Lockett

Erin Lockett is a Senior Policy Analyst at ExcelinEd, focusing on Course Access in the Innovation Policy set. Her work includes Innovation sessions and annual Pre-Summit workshops at the National Summit on Education Reform, convenings, thought leadership, and white papers on Course Access and Personalized Learning. She graduated from George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School for Public Policy and Public Administration with a Master’s in Public Administration, focusing on nonprofit management.