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Report: Federal Rules Impede Competency-Based Learning

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Competency-based learning, which allows students to progress at their own pace after they've shown mastery of a subject, rather than by their age, is quickly gaining momentum. Already, a few states like New Hampshire, Maine, and Oregon are moving towards implementing competency-based learning models throughout the entire state. What's more, 40 states have at least district experimenting with the model. But despite this growth, its proponents say federal policies for accountability and assessment are holding the movement back.

KnowledgeWorks, an organization that supports three education-focused initiatives -- New Tech Network, EDWorks and Strive -- recently released a report highlighting the pain points between federal policy and a competency-based system. The report, Competency Education Series: Policy Brief One [PDF], points out that, although the federal government has supported some aspects of competency-based learning, implementing the new model can be difficult because of federal restrictions.

“The greatest conflict stems from disconnect with the work on the ground and federal accountability and assessment systems,” the report states. “Implementers faced with this disconnect have no choice but to juggle two systems: one required by federal law and one developed by the educators, students, parents, and community leaders committed to successful implementation of competency education.”


Time is the biggest point of contention between the two systems. The federal government measures school accountability as well as student achievement through time-based modules. Seat time and annual test results are the primary ways that the government keeps schools accountable, categorizes them, and targets them for intervention. And required end-of-year tests focus school instruction timelines in specific ways that do not allow students to move at their own pace, a key element of a competency-based system.


With the competency models, students take summative assessments at various times throughout the year. They demonstrate what they've learned as they're learning -- not just during one or two big testing seasons, as most schools do.


Another big difference between the two systems is what gets tested. Competency-based learning focuses not just on content, but also on "soft skills" like communication, collaboration, and other higher-order thinking skills. In contrast, the federal assessments focus on the subjects of math and English Language Arts aligned with academic achievement standards, but not necessarily with core competencies. In other words, everything is based on a number score, not on whether the student can demonstrate that he can do each individual task determined to be a core competency.

Federal accountability standards track student achievement, not growth. Many competency-based models are tracking progression in career and college readiness as well as core competencies, and those can’t be reported to the federal government under the current rubrics.


The report also identifies limited resources as a roadblock to improve assessments, which they agree are essential, in order to complement the competency-based system. States already spend a significant amount of money on required federal assessments, so there’s no additional money to invest in assessments that would allow for demonstration of mastery or to evaluate throughout a year and not just at the end.


The KnowledgeWorks report doesn't give a smoking-gun solution for the various problems it raises. Instead, the group intends to continue investigating how federal policies could encourage competency-based learning by studying the effects of the few programs the government has decided to fund in this area. The organization also plans to pull together best practices from states moving ahead despite the challenges and to figure out how competency-based education could be assessed in a more comparative way.


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