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AN EMERGING FEDERAL ROLE FOR COMPETENCY EDUCATION: New KnowledgeWorks Policy Brief Identifies Federal Accountability and Assessment Systems as Challenges to Competency-Based Education Systems

“The U.S. education system for too long has been geared toward adults that operate the system and not the children who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the system,” said Matt Williams

In a competency-based education system, a student advances from grade-to-grade based on mastery of course content, not on the number of days spent in the classroom. A new policy brief from KnowledgeWorks examines the growing national movement toward a competency-based education and highlights key barriers within the federal accountability and assessment systems that pose a challenge to this work. The brief, An Emerging Federal Role for Competency Education, is the first in a series from KnowledgeWorks to help policymakers define the appropriate role for the federal government supporting competency education in the nation’s K–12 schools.

According to the brief, competency education “empowers students to demonstrate mastery of a wide range of knowledge and skills at their own pace.” Such an approach, it argues, gives graduates an ability to “showcase true mastery of learning instead of a transcript that tells colleges and future employers little more than an accumulation of credits or classes.”

“The U.S. education system for too long has been geared toward adults that operate the system and not the children who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the system,” said Matt Williams, KnowledgeWorks’ vice president of national policy and innovation. “Competency education turns that assumption on its head, because learning becomes personalized for students, meeting them where they are. Our hope is that policymakers embrace this new approach and truly help students prepare for college and career.”

Although it calls the adoption of new college- and career-ready standards a “signficant step in the right direction,” the brief says those standards will not achieve their intended impact unless they are accompanied by “dynamic” instructional programs that enable students to engage in “deeper learning,” which emphasizes mastery of content standards and the transferable skills critical to success in college and today’s workforce. It argues that successful implementation of the standards will depend on the adoption of models like competency education that challenge learners to apply standards through mastery of deeper learning objectives.

“A competency education system puts students at the center, replacing rigid time-based structures with flexible learning environments that ensure students receive the support and extra time they need to succeed,” the brief reads. “This highly-personalized approach provides clear, individualized pathways to student proficiency that help mobilize stakeholders around the collective goal of college and career readiness for all students.”

The brief includes a “competency education continuum,” which shows how school culture, learning progression, learning pace, instruction, assessment systems, and grading policies change as a school moves from a traditional approach toward an “emerging” competency-based system. It notes that such a system will “begin to see significant improvements in the quality of learning,” including increases in student engagement and performance and graduates who are better prepared for the transition to college and a career. Schools taking the next step—a full-scale competency model—will see “learning happening everywhere,” with students taking control of their education and educators playing a dynamic role in personalizing every day of the learning experience for their students.

Pointing to early leadership by New Hampshire, Maine, and Oregon, which, along with Iowa, have implemented statewide policies to redesign their education systems to support competency-based learning at scale, the brief identifies “significant milestones” at every level of the education system that represent a shift toward this new system. For example, one or more districts in at least forty states are implementing competency education, and thirty-nine states have enacted seat-time waivers or competency education laws.

Even with these gains, however, the brief argues that the success of the movement “depends heavily” on the federal government’s willingness to partner with states and school districts as they design these systems. “A true partnership will grant states the flexibility to innovate and develop equally ambitious accountability and assessment policies that better align with student centered education to ensure all students graduate with the knowledge and skills to succeed,” the brief notes.

The federal government has yet to move beyond small innovation grants and guidance to postsecondary institutions in its advancement of competency education, the brief notes. As a result, the work on the ground is disconnected from federal accountability and assessment systems. The brief calls this disconnection the greatest barrier to the implementation of this work because it forces implementers 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.

As an example of this disconnection, the brief notes that the federal accountability system under the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to report annual performance of districts and schools but “does little to support continuous improvement of the education system.” This annual nature of the federal system raises “significant challenges” for competency implementers who “generate summative and formative data continuously according to student learning pace, not school year,” the brief says. Additionally, it notes that the heavy federal emphasis on English and math scores does not represent the depth of learning in competency-based schools where students “are expected to master standards and transferrable workforce and social and emotional skills.”

The brief identifies similar problems with the nation’s current assessment system. Again, the annual nature of current assessments is an issue; in a competency environment, a student would not have to wait until the end of the year to demonstrate mastery of concepts achieved earlier in the year. The good news is that two state-led assessment consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are working to develop next generation assessments, as well as real-time digital assessment systems, all of which are aligned with the new the Common Core State Standards that will “provide educators with timely and meaningful feedback on student performance so all stakeholders in the system can better target instruction and support,” the brief notes.

An Emerging Federal Role for Competency Education is available at

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