State Policy Implications for Competency-Based Education Webinar Questions: Part 1 – Student Centered Pacing

On June 24, the American Youth Policy Forum and the College and Career Readiness and Success Center at the American Institutes for Research co-hosted a webinar on "State Implications for Competency-based Education Systems." Presenters included Kate Nielson, policy analyst for the National Governors Association; Diane Smith, Director of the Teaching and Learning Initiative for the Oregon Business Education Compact; Sandra Dop, Consultant for 21st Century Skills at the Iowa Department of Education; and Carissa Miller, Deputy Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). A brief summary of the webinar is available here.

Due to time constraints, presenters were unable to address all participant questions during the webinar. This post is the first in a two-part series in which presenters address these remaining questions.

Question: In a competency-based system, students have the ability to complete work at their own pace. How have states thought about how to support students who need more time to demonstrate competency? Alternatively, what do states do when students finish early? How can states think about adjusting resources and funding to allow for such a shift?

Jennifer Davis, Director, Innovation Lab Network, CCSSO (responding in place of Carissa Miller): For students who need more time, most states and districts implementing competency-based education (CBE) have outlined mechanisms for knowing when students are struggling and providing them with a variety of supports. Schools in Maine, for example, keep track of students’ pace against “teacher pace.” When students fall behind teacher pace, additional resources and supports are given. In Lindsay Unified School District in California, falling behind pace triggers the co-creation of an individualized learning plan (ILP) outlining the steps and supports the child will pursue to accelerate. Other states, like Kentucky, mandate an ILP for all students, which helps students, parents, and teachers monitor the child’s progress. Most states and districts implementing CBE are developing rich banks of digital resources for students to access on-demand. This, coupled with human guidance through mentors or advisors, provides students with multiple and/or targeted methods for reaching mastery.

The question of what students do when they finish early is complex and intertwined with the particular policy environment in each state. Some states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, allow students to earn credit based on mastery rather than Carnegie Units based on instructional hours. In most states, however, students are restricted to receiving credit and/or moving up grade levels based on seat time. Some districts, such as Lindsay Unified in California, get around this by situating their students within 13 content levels for each content area, in addition to designating grade levels.  Students can move as quickly as they want through content levels, even though, by age, they are restricted to a certain grade level. Districts in Maine and New Hampshire follow a similar pattern, allowing ready students to access content – digitally or analog in the context of blended or self-paced classrooms – typically reserved for higher courses or grade levels. Some elementary and secondary schools in Maine take this a step farther by eliminating grade levels in favor of grade clusters. Students may be grouped with other students that are one or two years younger or older. The schools re-cluster students periodically throughout the year based on their progress. Lastly, while states don’t typically permit students to physically exit high school and enter college or the workforce early (likely to prevent social under-development), many states are approaching new methods to allow students to begin earning college credit or workforce certifications while in high school. When coupled with CBE learning, these dual enrollment, early college, and CTE programs allow students to continue learning and advancing even after they fully master the K-12 curriculum.  

Sandra Dop: When students earn credit upon demonstration of proficiency, then they don’t really “finish early” or “not finish.”  They progress according to their own needs. Our current paradigm says there is a set time (a semester or a year) to “finish” specific content. If we can really get to what some in Iowa are calling “CBE-topia” or the ideal learning environment, then grades, credits, and courses will have faded away. Demonstration of proficiency of competencies will determine when and how students move on. As we work within our own learning progressions toward that state, we recognize that school happens in hours, days, semesters, and years. In that environment we do have students “finish early” and others who need more time. So what do we do with them?  First, as students are progressing, we can actually add competencies to their personalized learning plans—not “extra credit” or “busy work” but different competencies—perhaps deeper learning in the same content or other content. In this example, these students then “earn” more credit so they may get to the end of the year with 1.5 credits in biology—one credit the same as the others and a half credit in advanced biology. Conversely, when students are not on pace to earn the full credit—or demonstrate proficiency on all the competencies— the teachers are responsible to build in extra time and different ways for the student to learn. If all the efforts end up still not on pace at the end of the year, competencies can be worked on over the break or even in the next school year.  But students don’t just start over like in the current paradigm.  They work on the competencies they have not completed and move on when ready. 

Diane Smith:  Oregon has a phrase in our Talented and Gifted (TAG) law that references all students receiving instruction at their “rate and level of learning.”  We expect all students deserve instruction that meets these criteria and not just TAG students. That being said, the pace of instruction and the difficulty level of material and concepts are hard to differentiate for each student in classrooms of over 30, let alone classes of 45! The state depends on districts to identify the needs of the students with regard to pace and content, anticipating that it is easier to allocate resources such as human capital, space, funding, and time to student needs at the local level, rather than through state-level formulas. There are schools in Oregon where, through the flexibility given to local education agencies (LEAs), students are double-dosed or scheduled into interventions to work towards proficient levels of knowledge and skill. Some middle schools are withholding students from an elective for a period of time, allowing them additional time within the master schedule to focus on an area that is giving them problems. Others are offering online tutorials or double-doses in a 24-7 fashion. Teachers are also using the software built into their interactive white boards to record, post, and share their comments, as well as pen strokes used on the board to teach a concept or idea. This offers anytime/anywhere learning directly from the classroom teacher.

It seems to be more difficult to serve the needs of those who progress more quickly through the standards and material to be mastered. Sadly, it appears that we have harnessed our energy and honed our skills to bring kids up who are struggling, overlooking the fact that accelerated students who learn quickly are also struggling, but in different ways. Many of us have worked in environments where these students are expected to sit, listen, and work independently, not taking into account the “rate and level” that meets their needs. Because the funding formula in Oregon does not account for how quickly a student learns, schools are still in the driver’s seat in how to serve this population as well as those who struggle. Some elementary schools have a well-developed walk to learn model where, within a 1-3 year ability span, students move as frequently as necessary to keep them challenged from one group of standards (students) to another. This type of model has been tried by a couple of middle schools; however, the need to know where a student is at any given time during the day for safety reasons made this type of model laden with problems. Students at the secondary level are most frequently moved to the next course in a sequence when they have demonstrated proficiency in all standards tied to a course. The grade in the initial course is not recorded early unless there is an unexpected reason to do so.

We are hoping to get to a model where students take ownership of their learning, with the appropriate amount of developmental guidance necessary, and create a schedule that takes into account what they need to work on for more time than anything else, to learn first in order to master something else later, to work on more difficult areas during a time of day when they are the sharpest and the most focused, etc. They are the stewards of their learning and understand that a diploma represents a body of knowledge, skill, and dispositions, not a discrete number of credits earned for sitting in a desk.

Check back next week, when the presenters address questions related to the implications CBE approaches have on instruction, teacher preparation, and professional development; the role of non-cognitive skills in a CBE approach; and necessary state conditions for innovation.

Andrew Valent is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.

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