Competency Based Education | K12 Accountability
Competency Based Education and Standards Based Grading

Colorado, has mandated a seven-year transition from our current seat-time/Carnegie Unit based system to one based on the demonstrated mastery of a portfolio of clearly defined competencies. This is consistent with a broader trend towards life long learning, the accumulation of individual portfolios of certified competencies that can be combined in different ways, and the use of competency requirements to define what is needed to perform jobs and projects.

For more on these trends, read these three great papers: “The Degree is Doomed”, “Separating Learning from Credentialling”, and “The Currency of Higher Education: Credits and Competencies.” And if you want to see a glimpse of the future, you need look no further than the UK and EU, where a structured approach to certified competencies is already bridging the gaps between training, education, and lifetime learning.

For example, here are initial attempts to translate current state standards into a progression of competencies in reading and writing, social studies, math, and science.

Moving to competency based education will also enable students to progress at their own pace, and enable much more differentiated and individualized instruction, most likely utilizing a combination of teacher and technology provided instruction.

The good news is that the results of early competency based education experiments have been very encouraging; for example, Colorado’s Adams 50, a district with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch eligible students, has produced very significant improvements in achievement results after three years of competency implementation.

The bad news is that the transition from seat-time to competency-based education is a challenging one for a district to undertake (e.g., it took Adams 50 three years to start producing significant achievement improvements). However, if there is one innovation that merits the often overused “disruptive” label, we believe it is the move to competency-based education in K-12 and beyond.

This report provides an excellent overview of competency-based approaches in K12, (here is a shorter overview) and this report from RAND provides progress updates on competency-based pilots that are underway around the nation. And here is the later RAND study on competency based education. Here is a more in-depth analysis of competency based education initiatives and results in three states.

Here is a paper that describes competency based approaches used in other countries. And here is a good NPR story on the transition to competency-based education, and another good description of how it has been implemented by Summit Schools. Finally, here is a good article on the implementation of competency based education in higher education.

Even the Carnegie Foundation, the inventors of the "Carnegie Unit" that is the heart of our "seat time" based education system, has recognized that things have to change. Here is their new report on the evolution to competency based education. And here and here are two critiques of the Carnegie Foundation Report, which essentially say they didn't go far enough.

Here are two good reports on implementing CBE, one on the supporting information technology that is often needed (closely related to this paper on how blended learning is related to CBE), and one on the additional student supports that a CBE approach requires. And here is another on the implications of competency based education for assessment.

If you suspect that competency based education will encounter significant resistance from K12 systems that have been built around the seat-time concept, you are right, as this article describes.

If you want to stay on top of the latest developments in competency based education, I'd strongly recommend the Christensen Institute, and the excellent email updates and research publications they offer.

RAND has just published a new report on the implementation of competency based education in Texas, as well as one on the implementation of personalized learning.

RAND’s reports are complemented by this one, on testing and competency based education.

And here is a good new comparative analysis of competency based education pilots in three states.

Standards Based Grading

Standards Base Grading is sometimes confused with Competency Based Education. But with Standards Based Grading (SBG) becoming more popular, it is important that parents, business leaders, and policymakers understand the differences between them.

A good starting point is this excellent paper, which is an overview of credits and competencies as “two currencies” in which you can measure educational results.

This paper, this paper, and this paper provide good overviews of Standards Based Grading.

This paper, this one, and this one all provide evaluations of the benefits of this approach compared to traditional grading.

This paper reviews a subject that is far less discussed than it should be: What is the purpose of grades?

Generically, grades are a feedback mechanism. But that begs the question about the goals against whose attainment feedback is being provided. The obvious answer is feedback about the extent to which state academic standards have been attained. Compared to SBG, traditional letter grades are a crude tool for this purpose, as two students could have very different proficiencies on different standards (e.g., high on one, low on another) and still receive the same letter grade. SBG is a more granular approach, which provides feedback on whether a student has met or exceeded each standard.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, problems with SBG arise when traditional grades have been used to provide feedback on something other than mastery of academic standards, or have been compromised in other ways.

For example, at one high school we know well, with sad regularity students show up for 9th grade reading well below grade-level (based on NWEA MAPs) and unable to access high school content. Yet their transcript are filled with Bs and Cs, and they have been steadily advanced from grade to grades throughout elementary and middle school. This raises an obvious question as to what feedback these students’ grades were meant to communicate.

We see a similar phenomenon in some AP courses, where students grades are strong, but few receive a 3 or higher on the final AP exam.

The College Board and the ACT Organization have found evidence of both grade inflation, and, critically, wide variation in the grading standards used across high schools (see, respectively, "Investigating Grade Inflation and Non-Equivalence" and "High School Grade Inflation from 2004 to 2011").

The introduction of Standards Based Grading in traditional grading systems has unsurprisingly drawn criticism, as evidence by
this article and this article.

Finally this paper summarizes the difference between SBG and Competency-Based Education. In essence, SBG is usually something of a half-way house, in that it provides feedback on the extent to which, within the constraints of a typical “seat time” based system, a student has met or exceeded various academic standards. For example, at the end of given math class, a student may have met or exceeded 5 standards, but fallen short on 3 others. In a competency based system, students move at their own pace, and do not take on a new standard until the previous one is mastered. In so far as standards build on one another, this is critical.