Assessment Opinion

‘Thank God’ for Competency-Based Education

By Robert Rothman — March 26, 2015 3 min read
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“Thank God for New Hampshire.”

So said Terry Holliday, commissioner of education in Kentucky, this week at a summit meeting sponsored by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. He was referring to the Granite State’s accountability system, which recently won approval from the U.S. Department of Education.

New Hampshire’s system is a pilot, in four districts. In it, the districts will administer a statewide summative test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test, in only certain grades--third (in English language arts), fourth (in mathematics), eighth (in both subjects), and eleventh (in both subjects). In the intervening grades, the state will administer extended performance tasks. In addition, districts will administer locally developed performance assessments in science in all grades.

The purpose of this effort is to support the competency-based system New Hampshire began nearly a decade ago. Educators in the state have long recognized that the assessments that measure if students can demonstrate required competencies are not included in traditional accountability metrics.

Why is this worth divine gratitude? This represents the first time since the passage of No Child Left Behind that extended performance tasks are included in accountability systems. That is a big deal. As readers of this blog know, state summative tests have tended to measure a relatively narrow range of knowledge and skills, and while new tests like Smarter Balanced are a significant step forward, they still will not measure all the competencies students need to be able to demonstrate to succeed in the future. Performance tasks can capture a broader range of competencies, like the ability to conduct research, write extended essays, and solve complex, real-world mathematics problems.

Many of the schools that writers of this blog represent already administer performance tasks, and nothing in NCLB prohibits schools from doing so. But including them in accountability means that they count. Measures of school performance will be based on these broader competencies, not just whatever state tests measure. And schools will have incentives to address those competencies and engage students in projects and extended learning opportunities.

According to New Hampshire officials, the state had to do a huge amount of work to get to this point. The officials worked with partners and a broad swath of teachers to develop performance tasks that truly measure what they intend to measure, and to ensure that they can be scored reliably and consistently. They also had to assure the U.S. Department of Education that the tasks would be comparable from district to district, and that they had a plan to evaluate the results and make adjustments if needed.

It is important to remember, though, that New Hampshire’s new system is only a small step forward; as Holliday also said, the state “pushed the envelope a little bit.” The system is a pilot only in four districts. It may expand, and other districts are interested in doing so. But for now, the pilot only affects a small number of students in relatively small districts.

Expanding the pilot will be challenging. The state needs to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of high-quality tasks and, importantly, that teachers are capable of scoring them accurately and fairly. The districts involved in the pilot had to demonstrate their readiness to do so, and not all districts are in that position.

But the fact that the state won approval to move ahead with the pilot is an encouraging sign, and there are reports that other states--notably Colorado and Iowa--are interested in following suit. They know that the current system of accountability has helped hold back a broader acceptance of performance assessment. New Hampshire might have cracked that wall.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.