States Urged to Emphasize Competency-Based Learning in the ESSA Era

By Leo Versel — January 02, 2018 5 min read
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State policymakers should use the flexibility in the Every Student Succeeds Act to “transform accountability,” and move to more sophisticated models that emphasize competency-based learning and preparation for college and careers, a new report argues.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) recently released a policy brief titled “Rethinking State Accountability to Support Personalized, Competency-Based Learning in K-12 Education.” The Vienna, Va.-based education advocacy organization advises K-12 school and district policymakers to redesign accountability systems in an effort to transition from a “culture of compliance to one of continuous improvement.”

With all 50 states’ ESSA accountablity plans submitted, nearly every state now has some sort of strategy to improve career readiness in their plans, according to an analysis from Advance CTE, which advocates for workforce education. (Alyson Klein recently summarized this report on the Politics K-12 blog.)

But the iNACOL report suggests revisiting the accountability plans with a new lens.

Most states currently approach accountability in a way that identifies the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools as required by the law, focusing on “narrow, time-based metrics of student achievement and a one-size-fits-all approach,” the iNACOL report says. In contrast to this strategy, the report authors envision changing accountability significantly to put a greater emphasis on collecting, reporting, and using student data primarily to support student success, not just because laws and regulations require it.

“Continuously improving education systems use evidence-based practices to improve learning and monitor the progress of students, schools, and systems in real-time,” the report’s authors write. States need to ensure that “students get the supports they need, when they need them, for growth and success.”

Maria Worthen, iNACOL’s vice president for federal and state policy and one of the brief’s authors, said states and districts should reframe the way they see accountability.

“Compliance-based accountability is really top-down, in that states do what they are required to do and do not think about what value they could add to student learning,” Worthen said in an interview. “Accountability for continuous improvement [means] looking across the various levels of the system to help answer what it means for every stakeholder to share in the success of students.”

So, what aspects of an accountability system can help provide what’s needed for students’ growth and development? And how can a system give all stakeholders more transparency in the process of improving a school? The authors argue in favor of five essential requirements:

  • Creating a “new, more holistic definition of student success” that reflects the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in higher education, the workforce, and civic life.

  • Providing educators and students with transparency around “mastery, gaps, and depth of student learning,” so learning gaps can be filled and all students have an opportunity to learn at deeper levels.

  • Keeping track of students’ pacing and on-task progress.

  • Integrating evidence of what works best to improve student learning into teaching and curricula.

  • Promoting equity and including necessary resources and supports to ensure equal outcomes for students, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, disability, or English-language proficiency.

The report explains the framework of “reciprocal accountability,” a term coined by Harvard Professor Richard Elmore, and recommends it as a first step to accomplish these goals. Elmore argues that each level in an accountability system, from federal and state governments down to districts and schools, is responsible for producing “high-quality learning opportunities for every child.”

As a first step toward achieving reciprocal accountability, the report encourages states to engage with diverse stakeholders at different levels, considering how new accountability designs can increase equity and improve outcomes for every student.

Is Vermont a Model?

As an example of a next-generation accountability system, the report cites Vermont’s ESSA accountability plan. The Vermont Agency of Education measures school performance using five priority areas: academic proficiency; personalization; high-quality staffing; safe, healthy schools; and investment priorities.

For each of the state’s five priorities, Vermont’s education department has guiding accountability questions and reporting measures, using a rating system from “near target” to “on target.” (See the graphic from the iNACOL report, above, which breaks down Vermont’s accountability system.)

As ESSA requires states to identify their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, Vermont’s rating system identifies schools that perform “off-target” on a three-year cycle on the state’s first priority, academic proficiency. But unlike accountability models that rely on a single, summative rating of school performance, Vermont’s rating system encourages a culture of continuous improvement. School leaders and educators receive guidance on how to achieve the outcome targets for their school and students.

“Vermont’s state plan considers how all schools can improve, not just schools that have been labeled under a particular perfomance level,” Worthen said. “I think that’s in the spirit and mindset of continuous improvement.”

Back to the Drawing Board?

The authors recommend that state policymakers bring together educators, policymakers, and community members to create a new definition of student success, which may help redefine knowledge and skills that will carry students forward in college, careers, and life.

Though Worthen said her organization has not completed a review of ESSA state accountability plans, she pointed to an interactive map from KnowledgeWorks, a national education organization which is one of iNACOL’s partners. The map examines state strategies to promote personalized learning through ESSA and includes links to summaries of each state’s accountability measures.

The authors point out that states can send a request to the Department of Education to amend their ESSA accountability measures at any time.

“It is important for states, but also for education stakeholders, to think about how to better their plans,” Worthen said, “and what support they may need from the U.S. Department of Education to change their plans.”

See also:

Photo included from iNACOL policy brief. (Source: Vermont Agency of Education)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.