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Measuring Student Success at the Center of Learning

• Nathan Martin

Placing every student at the center of learning requires policymakers to carefully construct the way we measure achievement around the needs and progress of each student.

Student growth cannot be equated with the number of hours spent sitting in a classroom and cannot be fully captured by a traditional diploma. The Aspen Institute’s Task Force on Learning and the Internet recently released their findings and recommendations in Learner at the Center of a Networked World. Jointly led by Gov. Jeb Bush and Rosario Dawson, the Task Force emphasized the need to move past traditional measurements for achievement and embrace ones that reflect the diversity of learning in the 21st century.

The report highlights competency-based learning—when a student advances based on content proficiency rather than credit hours—and badges—recognition of student mastery over specific concept—as two new methods of measuring and credentialing success that policymakers should encourage and incentivize. The Aspen Task Force developed three recommendations around this key area:

  • Support pilots for new, competency-based learning approaches that recognize knowledge, skills, and competencies achieved in or outside of schools.
  • Disseminate case studies and evaluations of effective programs and best practices in advancing student-centered learning through learning networks and competency-based approaches.
  • Develop new assessments and tools to convey evidence of student achievement through learning networks, such as badges or other new credentialing, and encourage states to develop mechanisms, such as portable data backpacks, that can assist with the collection and secure storage of student credentials, work, and outcomes.

As the report notes, “Competency-based approaches to assessment and credit-granting can ensure that all learning counts, no matter where or when it occurs. But implementing these approaches will require modernizing the way education is organized and regulated.”

Chief among encouraging thoughtful modernization and implementation is iNACOL and its work with Competency Works spreading best practices and collaborative approaches to this new model. The Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation continues to drive the vision of the future of learning and provided policymakers with an invaluable resource and case studies of competency-based learning in New Hampshire with its recent two-part whitepaper. ExcelinEd is also advancing policy discussions around this approach, including a white paper co-authored with Getting Smart and Competency Works.

Placing the student at the center of learning involves more than just what happens when they walk into their local school. Students are learning at all hours, in all places and in numerous different ways. Whether that’s learning to code, apprenticeships or other hands-on activities, our system needs better ways of rewarding and tracking this type of learning.

As we highlighted at ExcelinEd’s annual National Summit on Education Reform in 2013 as part of Education’s New Normal, badging promises to be a new way of tracking and reporting student progress for schools and employers. It will be critical for students to have ways to easily show and gain credit for the knowledge gained in online learning and other learning experiences.

States continue to take the lead in this evolution. As the report recognizes, “the Common Core State Standards represent a major effort by a majority of states to create enough commonality in academic standards to make it possible to create common instructional resources and evaluate student performance across schools.” Both the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Consortium (SBAC) are exploring ways their new assessment systems can support competency-based models of learning.

To truly put students at the center of learning, schools, and states should embrace these new competency-based measurements, assessments, and badging explored in Learner at the Center of a Networked World. Students are no longer content with the classroom of the 1950s, and the jobs of the future will not be content with traditional paper resumes.

This blog post first appeared on

About the author

Nathan Martin

Nathan Martin serves as the State Policy Director of Online and Blended Learning for Digital Learning Now. Previously, he worked as the Director of Policy and Alliances for Scantron, an education technology company focusing on digital learning and assessment. Prior to that, he worked in journalism, producing a nationally-syndicated talk radio show, working for the Washington Post and writing for various newspapers in his home state of Mississippi. Nathan received his undergraduate degree from Patrick Henry College. Contact Nathan at