School & District Management Opinion

Seven Ways State Policy Can Promote Competence

By Tom Vander Ark — August 07, 2014 3 min read
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Since Horace borrowed the idea from the Prussians, we’ve been batch-processing kids based on birthdays through a print curriculum. This batch-print system
was moderately efficient until we tried to retrofit it to work for all kids. It just created a mess of tacked on services and a crazy patchwork quilt of
courses. As educational demands of society increase, it becomes increasingly obvious that the batch-print system doesn’t work well for at least two thirds
of our kids.

Many of us believe that personalized learning environments where students progress as they demonstrate mastery hold the promise to boost achievement and
completion rates for struggling students while speeding accelerated students through the K-16 system several years faster than is common today. However,
the transition to a competency-based system is pedagogically, politically, and technically challenging. Despite policy barriers there are thousands of
schools creating these next generation blended and competency-based environments. To accelerate the shift and improve outcomes, states should address these
7 things now.

1. Standards.
Embrace a broad view of college and career readiness expressed in standards and graduation requirements. Maine went a step further and adopted a
requirement for a proficiency-based graduation (discussed on CompetencyWorks).

2. Assessments & accountability.
Week-long year end summative tests and a singular focus on rates of grade level proficiency lock in the old age cohort model--and it doesn’t serve
struggling or accelerated students well. States (and state consortia) should migrate away from heavyweight summative assessments to on-demand (or
frequently scheduled) elementary grade level and secondary end of course exams. Students should be able to demonstrate mastery when they’re ready--and if
they’re not ready they should get more time and targeted assistance. (See DLN section on Advancement.)

Most districts and networks will want to use more frequent gateways than end of course and they’ll combine multiple assessments at a unit level to
determine competence. All of these standards-aligned assessments can be used to create comparable individual student growth measures.

With standardized ways of combining classroom formative assessment, states can ditch
the big end of year standardized tests. States could use growth rates and a sampling strategy (like NAEP) to confirm school quality.

3. Time.
States should ditch seat time requirements. Blended learning environments also benefit from flexibility in staffing ratios. (See OpportunityCulture for 20 examples.)

4. Funding.
Changing how students are organized and how they move through the system requires a new approach to funding schools. With weighted, flexible, portable, and performance-based funding,
schools budgets reflect actual challenges with the flexibility to create a blended and competency-based environment.

5. Course access.
A competency-based secondary system is added by access to a couple different learning options (e.g., blended or online), career oriented pathways, expanded
electives, and a variety of college credit options. (See DLN paper on Making the Most of State Course Access Programs.)

6. Guidance.
With every student on a unique learning trajectory and more secondary options, every student needs a strong sustained guidance program--probably delivered
through an advisory structure--with links to academic and family support services. (See DLN paper on

Guiding and Personalizing College & Career Readiness


Like Texas (HB 5), states could require a college and career
ready plan and provide a web of support like Communities in Schools. LIke Louisiana Supplemental Course Academy, states could provide online
counselors. Like Washington, states could provide a statewide
licence to an online guidance system.

7. Entry points.
Like the Ohio Straight A Fund, states could support sustainable innovation. States could
provide matching funds to regional programs like NGLC Breakthrough Schools.
Like Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority ( recent feature), school improvement networks can be a viable
place to pilot competency-based models.

For more, see:

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.