Special Report

States Loosening ‘Seat Time’ Requirements

By Sean Cavanagh — March 05, 2012 9 min read
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States have established an array of policies in recent years to free schools from having to award academic credits based on “seat time,” with the goal of making it easier for struggling students to catch up, exceptional students to race ahead, and students facing geographic and scheduling barriers to take the courses they need.

Thirty-six states have adopted policies that allow districts or schools to provide credits based on students’ proving proficiency in a subject, rather than the time they physically spend in a traditional classroom setting, according to the National Governors Association. One state, New Hampshire, has required high schools to assign credits based on competency, rather than seat time, while others have encouraged schools to do that or allowed them to apply for waivers from state policy to do so.

In addition to their desire to increase academic opportunities for students, state policymakers are eager to boost high school graduation rates by re-engaging struggling teenagers through online or alternative courses, and potentially putting them on the path to a two- or four-year college degree or career certification.

Merely “having a seat in a class doesn’t guarantee you anything,” said Jason Glass, the director of the Iowa Department of Education. He and Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, are asking state lawmakers to create a system that allows students to prove their ability in different subjects in a variety of ways—such as through tests, demonstrations of skills, and the completion of projects.

“Right now,” Mr. Glass said, “we allow kids to move on by demonstrating very minimal competencies in these courses.” The concept is “still sort of cutting edge,” he added, “but we want Iowa experimenting with it.”

Others, however, wonder whether advocates of moving away from seat time are more interested in trying to boost graduation rates through online and other means than in keeping an eye on the instructional quality of those courses.

“A teacher inspires students. A laptop can’t do that,” said Rita M. Solnet, a member of Parents Across America, an organization that is critical of efforts to shift educational services away from the public to the private sector. She suggested that lawmakers in her state, Florida, and elsewhere are among those putting more focus on improving graduation rates than on maintaining the academic quality of the new online learning programs they are creating.

Florida has an extensive virtual education program through the Florida Virtual School, the country’s largest state-sponsored virtual school, and this year, the Republican-controlled legislature has been considering a measure that would require that students assigned to teachers with a continually low performance rating be told of virtual education options.

The risk in the push for such programs is that public officials, in an effort to improve graduation rates, will allow online providers to present easy material to students so they can “breeze right through it,” Ms. Solnet said.

Beyond Carnegie Units

For roughly a century, the standard method for awarding American students academic credit was through Carnegie units, a measure based on student time spent in school. The goal of that measurement was to standardize the amount of instruction students received and were credited for across subjects, for college admission and other purposes.

Where Credit Is 'Do'

States have taken a variety of approaches in shifting away from awarding credits based on “seat time” to accepting mastery- or proficiency-based credits:

• New Hampshire eliminated the Carnegie unit in 2005, and it gave schools until the 2008-09 school year to award academic credits based on mastery, not seat time. Some districts have yet to make the change. The state’s policy was designed to expand student-learning opportunities through online and other means, and reduce dropouts.

• Michigan in 2007 created a policy to grant waivers from seat-time requirements to districts on a case-by-case basis. More than 200 schools have requested some sort of waiver over the past year, and about 5,500 students are making use of that flexibility, most of them through a blended-learning approach, combining in-person and online instruction.

• Oregon since 2003 has allowed districts and schools to use proficiency-based approaches for awarding credit to students. From 2004 to 2006, the state piloted that policy in seven school districts; in 2009, state policy was expanded to require that all in-class work be tied explicitly to demonstrated proficiency or mastery of academic standards.

• Oklahoma requires schools to allow students, upon request, to earn credits toward graduation in core academic subjects based on demonstrations of mastery through tests, state officials say. Students must score grades of 90 percent or higher on those tests to receive credit.

SOURCES: International Association for K-12 Online Learning; National Governors Association; Education Week

But over time, critics have said that model has become increasingly obsolete, in that it doesn’t help students who aren’t being served well by traditional classrooms and doesn’t account for the ways in which advances in technology and alternative instructional methods can help students.

Perhaps no state has gone as far as New Hamsphire in moving away from seat-time requirements. In 2005, it became the first state to do away with the Carnegie unit, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning, or INACOL, a Vienna, Va.-based group that supports expanding online education options.

The state gave districts until the 2008-09 academic year to award students credits based on their mastery of course-level competencies, though some districts have yet to make the change. (“N.H. Schools Embrace Competency-Based Learning,” Feb. 8, 2012.)

New Hampshire does not have state definitions for discipline-specific competencies, but rather gives school districts the right to define them, a level of flexibility local officials have argued is a matter of local control, said Paul K. Leather, the state’s deputy commissioner of education.

The state has offered guidance to districts through a “competency validation rubric” and model competencies.

Students across the state are obtaining competency-based credits through online courses and extended-learning programs, generally defined as out-of-school options that could include apprenticeships, independent study, or community service.

So far, more students are using competency-based options for elective courses, rather than core academic subjects, Mr. Leather said.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education encourages “promising practices” among states and districts, in which schools make the most of student learning time and ensure that students’ mastery of academic content is a major focus, noted Elizabeth Utrup, a spokeswoman for the agency, in an email.

Department officials believe those strategies can improve schools’ flexibility and productivity, she said.

Yet even as states roll out new policies designed to move away from seat-time requirements, they face major questions about how to integrate new education options within their current systems.

For instance, many states do not have clearly defined policies on whether public colleges and universities should accept credits awarded for mastery of a subject, rather than seat time, explained Stephanie Shipton, an education policy analyst at the Washington-based NGA.

Credit for College

Some states could soon move to clarify those policies. Over the next few years, Colorado officials will be revising college admissions policy, and are likely to consider accepting credits acquired through students’ demonstration of mastery, including those obtained through web-based portfolios of work, according to officials at the state Department of Higher Education.

State policies also vary greatly in how they attempt to regulate the awarding of credits to students other than by seat time, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a research and policy organization in Denver.

Some states audit online programs and other alternative education options; some require that online or out-of-school courses adhere to state academic standards; some mandate end-of-course exams for students; and some attempt to regulate them by setting requirements for teacher qualifications, Ms. Dounay Zinth said.

Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, sees the shift away from seat time as part of a broader movement in U.S. education to rework traditional school schedules to increase student achievement—such as through lengthening the school day or school year.

But he also said it represents another shift, too: a move away from “regulatory accountability” of schools, toward more “performance-based” or “market” accountability. Under the latter form of accountability, advocates of nontraditional options say they should be judged on their ability to produce results for students, and by how attractive those options are for parents.

State policymakers would be wise to move more slowly in promoting alternatives to traditional classroom instruction, given their uneven record, he argued. Mr. Miron released a report this year that found that a much smaller percentage of schools managed by for-profit virtual education providers—27 percent—made “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act than was the case among schools managed by nonprofit and for-profit organizations, overall.

“I’m cautious about the speed of implementation, before we’ve taken the time to figure all of these things out, and test all of these things out,” Mr. Miron said.

Some states are giving districts the flexibility to come up with alternatives to seat-time requirements.

Michigan is among them. In 2007, the state created a policy to grant waivers from seat-time requirements to districts on a case-by-case basis.

Luring Dropouts Back

Over the past year, more than 200 schools have requested some sort of waiver, and about 5,500 students are making use of that flexibility, said Barbara Fardell, the manager of educational technology for the Michigan Department of Education.

The majority of those participants are doing some form of blended learning, combining traditional instruction in public schools with online learning or other alternative forms of instruction, Ms. Fardell said.

Many of the schools are attempting to lure dropouts back to school—who have obtained relatively few credits in traditional high school settings, she said. For those students, “it’s hard to come back,” the Michigan official said. “They feel there’s a stigma.”

“I won’t say that an online environment is the best way for all students to learn best,” Ms. Fardell added, “but it’s definitely the better option for some of them.”

One agency making use of that flexibility is the Oakland Schools, a regional service agency outside Detroit that oversees the participation of students from 17 school districts in Widening Advancements for Youth. WAY, as the program is known, is a nonprofit program based in Belleville, Mich. It uses primarily online lessons, combined with in-person instruction, and mentoring, tailored to individual student needs.

The Oakland Schools began accepting students into the program in September; enrollment is 160 and growing.

See Also

Upcoming Webinar: Beyond Seat-Time Requirements

Some states are transitioning from seat-time requirements to competency-based education, which allows students to receive credit based on what they know, instead of how much time they spend in class. Yet concerns remain about doing away with seat-time requirements.
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Students are assigned mentors and are given access to a network of adult support, including teachers who provide help at in-person laboratories the students are expected to attend, as well as educators who provide online support 24 hours a day, WAY officials said. Students work on “projects” in different subjects in which they lack credit, and work toward meeting state content expectations in those subjects, and Oakland Schools then recommends whether or not students’ home districts should award them academic credit, said Michael Yocum, the executive director of learning services for the Oakland schools.

The program is winning over “school-phobic” students, who do not feel comfortable in traditional classroom settings, said Mr. Yocum.

“We try to shape the projects around what will motivate them,” Mr. Yocum said. “It’s an attempt to reinvigorate them, and get them to look at academic work differently.”

One student who says her perspective has shifted is Rebecca Poniewierski, 15, from Auburn Hills, Mich.

Before joining the program, she had accumulated only a handful of academic credits, acquired at an area high school.

Now she’s trying to rebuild her academic career in subjects like chemistry, U.S. history, and algebra. Much of her work is done online, but she makes regular visits to a laboratory to meet her teachers in person in various subjects, and she can ask for online help at all hours of the day.

Ms. Poniewierski admits she had doubts whether the online-heavy program would work for her. She worried she would procrastinate too much—and she confesses to spending too much time on Facebook, though she says “that just makes me work longer.”

“I’m a totally different person now that I’m out of [my] school,” she said. “So far, I’m catching up easily. If I don’t understand, and I want to talk to a teacher or mentor, I can talk to them.”

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Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as States Loosening Entrenched ‘Seat Time’ Requirements


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