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Illinois Competency-Based Education Pilot Off to a Promising Start

• Barbara Escobar

“College and career readiness” is more than a policy buzzword in Illinois.

In 2016, the state set out to increase access to quality postsecondary opportunities for all students. To reach this goal, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into law the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act after a historic unanimous vote on the legislation by the General Assembly.

Illinois’ approach to college and career readiness was both unique and comprehensive—even providing targeted efforts to reach students farthest from existing postsecondary opportunities. The legislation addressed college and career pathways and postsecondary expectations, and it also included something a little extra. Baked inside the new law was authorization for the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program.

Image Source: Illinois State Board of Education

Launching the CBE Pilot Program

The Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program launched last year with remarkable success. Ten school districts—large and small, urban and rural—are participating in the pilot’s first cohort, and the program has progressed faster than expected.

Illinois State Superintendent Tony Smith, Ph.D., who is leading the development and integration of the pilot, explained the importance of this program, “These districts are modeling the future I want to see in Illinois—innovative, led by educators, supportive of the whole child and of every student reaching their full potential, and with schools at the center of healthy communities.”

Recasting Education

ISBE is assisting school districts in their efforts to transition to a competency-based system that will better prepare students for today’s college and career demands. At Williamsfield Community School District—for example—the district, ISBE and the state’s Regional Alternative Education Services are collaborating to develop alternative graduation pathways for high school diplomas and recast secondary education as a knowledge- and skills-driven pursuit (rather than being about “chasing credits”). The school district has established four graduation pathways to complement the high school diploma:

  • Diploma and Associate’s degree;
  • Diploma and college credits;
  • Diploma and trade certification; and
  • Diploma and internship/work-based placement.

Now high school academic credit and graduation requirements for students within the pilot program will no longer be based on seat-time—they will be based on students’ mastery of 21st-century skills instead.

Promising Results

School districts from the first cohort of the pilot have promising preliminary results to show for their work. The school districts have provided students access to advanced postsecondary education and career-related competencies beyond graduation requirements. Students are being assessed on multiple measures to determine mastery, and some districts are even requiring application of content knowledge. Students are even able to earn credit toward graduation in alternative ways—for example, learning opportunities through supervised on-site career development experiences.

And in the progress report released in June, school districts in the first and second cohort demonstrated how they plan to adopt their own strategies for implementing competency-based education (CBE). The first cohort of school districts participating in the pilot was announced in April 2017. The second cohort was announced earlier this year in March.

Phase 1 of the pilot included an initial application and selection process as well as requirement to identify math, English and science competencies related to college and career readiness. Phase 2 includes full development and actual implementation of the proposed CBE system. Several school districts currently participating in the pilot are implementing programs this fall.

The program will continue evaluating the implementation of participating school districts and is looking to add a few more districts to its second cohort this summer. (Originally, the PWR Act limited school participation to grades 9-12, however strong advocacy from schools prompted the passage of legislation in 2018 to expand grade levels from K-12.)

Moving Forward

ISBE hopes to maintain the program’s exceptional momentum as the state advances toward the goal of developing a statewide framework and expansion of the program.

Mary Reynolds, ISBE’s Executive Director of Innovation and Secondary Transformation, noted that as participating school districts are overcoming policy barriers to implement the program they are being careful to avoid building new walls. Instead, they are keeping the focus on how to best support students so they can graduate from high school ready to thrive in college and/or their chosen career.

Because that, after all, is what the program is all about.

Image Source: Illinois State Board of Education

About the author

Barbara Escobar

Barbara Escobar is a policy and research fellow at ExcelinEd and works closely with the policy impact team based in Washington, D.C. She has a great deal of experience in policy and research through her course work and serving as analyst and fellow for organizations such as the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of State Boards of Education. Barbara is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a specialization in education policy and statistics.