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Timing Is Everything

• Karla Phillips

Competency-based education is a system of personalized instruction with enough flexibility to provide the time, feedback and support for ALL students to demonstrate mastery of state standards. By allowing students to “show what they know,” students will be able to progress through classes at a flexible pace, with around-the-clock access to coursework from any location.

The age-old system of batch processing students by age and grade has outlived its usefulness. Competency-based education would allow schools to restructure a student’s typical school day and adjust instruction to meet his or her level of learning. The goal for all students would be to graduate from high school prepared for college or a career.

This important conversation about competency-based learning should be disassociated, at least for now, from conversations surrounding the future of grade-level state criterion referenced exams, especially with the possibility of ESEA Reauthorization. Any casual observer of education reform knows about the testing backlash. It is true that the time has come to envision different types of school accountability measures, but we are putting the cart before the horse. The crux of the debate really centers on the role of statewide criterion-referenced tests.

Timing is everything. The implementation of new college and career ready standards has shifted learning expectations for our children from procedural knowledge and skills to understanding. These standards focus on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills students will need to be successful. There is a world of difference between a student who can recall a formula to apply to a math problem and a student who can explain where the formula comes from. The student who can explain the formula understands, and may have a better chance to succeed at a less familiar task.

Since 2010, states have been developing items and assessments to measure both understanding and procedural knowledge and skill. These new assessments are being debuted this year in many states. The assessments will set a new learning and proficiency expectation for all children. Retaining the state criterion-referenced exam requirement will serve to set the new, more rigorous expectations for proficiency, setting a new comparison measure for depth and rigor.

Given the political debates already underway surrounding assessments and accountability, we will need time for the dust to settle before contemplating a different role for their use.

As we aspire for competency-based systems that have the potential to dramatically enhance transparency of student level performance, we cannot abandon the assessments and related accountability systems that provide desperately needed comparable school level information for parents, policymakers and the public. Annual, statewide assessments allow comparability across schools and districts. This, in turn, ensures the civil rights of all of our students, allows interventions to target the schools and students most in need, and empowers parents with the information they need to make informed decisions about educational options for their child.

The foundational idea of No Child Left Behind centered on equity. As we move to more serious conversations about personalized learning, we need to ensure that flexible pacing and new assessment systems will maintain alignment and rigor. As competency-based systems are developed and piloted, the state standards remain at the core. But the premise is that a system of assessments will be more flexible in both type and timing as well as maintaining comparability, reliability and validity. Evaluation studies to verify reliability and validity of the new assessment systems compared to the state assessments will be needed to serve that purpose.

A robust system of formative assessments coupled with performance tasks and accompanying data systems are an important component of a successful competency-based system. Educators need these types of assessments to make real time decisions for individual students, and this is where the potential for innovation lies (along with data systems to support them). However, this conversation is separate and apart from statewide annual testing needed for both validation and school-level accountability.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education and others began a robust discussion over what the next generation of assessment and accountability systems should look like. The conversation is finally happening, and we encourage the inclusion of current summative measures to be part of the overall assessment and accountability plans.

We applaud the effort of New Hampshire’s PACE proposal to spearhead the innovative national conversation on competency-based systems under a recently approved ESEA Flexibility waiver. As we look forward to possible ESEA reauthorization, the national conversation must focus on how we balance the preservation of annual testing with an open door for competency-based systems. The ability for states to conduct demonstration pilots presents an opportunity to develop the policy and implementation details to advance the discussion on competency based assessment and accountability.

Again, timing is everything. The time is right to begin the debate, but it is premature to contemplate permanent changes to state summative exams until new replacement systems are ripe and new standards have taken root.

This post was coauthored by Christy Hovanetz and Karla Phillips.

About the Author

Christy Hovanetz is a Senior Policy Fellow for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Dr. Hovanetz served as the Assistant Commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education and Assistant Deputy Commissioner at the Florida Department of Education. She has worked in education policy for the state of Florida since 1999 serving as the Director of Evaluation and Reporting, Director of Reading First and a Policy Analyst for Governor Jeb Bush. She graduated summa cum laude from St. Cloud State University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education with a minor in mathematics and is a certified teacher in the state of Minnesota. She earned her Masters of Public Administration at the University of Minnesota and a Doctor of Philosophy in Public Administration and Policy at The Florida State University. 


About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.