Is your student 'competent'? A new education yardstick takes the measure.
A new learning regimen requires pupils to show proficiency in 'core competencies' for each subject – with no exceptions. It's called competency-based education. Here's who's trying it and what it entails.
Grading at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H., is not influenced by some of the more traditional factors, such as turning in homework on time or doing "extra credit." Instead, each class defines a set of about four "competencies" – central concepts and skills – and a student must be proficient in each one to pass. Stellar performance in one can't make up for lack in another.Skip to next paragraph
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Students here have multiple opportunities along the way to show teachers what they know: There are quizzes and tests, yes, but also projects, individual portfolios, and class performances.
Spelling out what students need to demonstrate to earn passing or high grades "takes the subjectivity out of it," says Sanborn English teacher Aaron Wiles. A student tripping over one math concept gets pinpointed help, rather than accumulating gaps in understanding and having to take the entire course again. Students reflect on and revise their work until they meet expectations. "They take ownership of it," Mr. Wiles says.
This approach to learning is known as competency-based education, and New Hampshire is among the pioneers. As it gains momentum around the United States, the expectation is that it will deepen learning and tie education more explicitly to skills that will equip students for the workplace and college-level studies – everything from accurate math and writing to creative problem-solving. Competency education can be done in a variety of ways and across all subjects, but it takes a different mind-set than simply marching through a textbook-based curriculum.
Sixty-five percent of jobs in America will require some college-level study by 2020, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The majority of states have signed on to Common Core State Standards in English and math as a way to ensure that successful students won't have to do remedial work in college. Student tests being developed to go along with these standards aim to probe more deeply than traditional multiple-choice standardized tests by giving students tasks that require them to solve problems and apply what they've learned. Schools with a competency-based approach have already been doing that across a wide range of subjects.
Advocates also see it as a promising way to personalize learning and to break out of the traditional classroom and school calendars, which move students through on the basis of age and "seat time." New Hampshire and several other states are building flexibility into their systems so students can advance and graduate when they are ready, not because they've spent a certain number of days in courses.
"Grouping kids by birthday was convenient 100 years ago because we didn't have a better way to organize a system of public education ... [but] when we think about next-generation models ... [students] should progress when they've demonstrated they've mastered important concepts," says Tom Vander Ark, an educator and director at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit in Washington that supports competency-based education.