This article, the third in a series on competency education in K12 and higher education, seeks to outline, but certainly not resolve, a number of issues related to how students make the transition from K12 to college in a CBE world and how the educational institutions (districts, high schools, colleges, and universities) will need to relate to each other.
College Application Process
There is one question that will always arise in conversations with parents, guardians, and students, especially those with upper incomes and upper GPAs: How will competency-based education affect my ability to go to and compete for college? There are several parts to this answer, and we are making some progress on addressing them all.
1. Will Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) Accept Students: Thanks to the extraordinary leadership of the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC), we now have 68 colleges and universities, including several elite schools, that have signed the Collegiate Pledge to accept proficiency-based transcripts and to commit to students not being disadvantaged by them. The website lists all the institutions of higher education (IHE) that have signed on, and the pledge is available for other organizations to use if they want to catalyze their region. Certainly, all IHE with CBE programs should just sign the pledge and send it on over to NESSC.
2. Will Students in CBE Schools Be as Competitive?: This is such a complicated question that it deserves an entire article (or two) on its own. At this point, I believe that students will be as competitive or more so had their school continued to be based on a traditional, time-based model. Of course, if the entire state or country is competency-based, then any advantage to students is lost, but much is gained for communities, as the bar is raised from getting an “A” to demonstrating you can apply the skills. Below is a bit of my thinking on this issue.
a. There is no data so far (and I watch for it carefully) that students at CBE schools are doing worse based on current assessments and measures than when the school was traditional. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that they will be less competitive.
b. When I visit high schools, there is always a trickle and sometimes a stream of commentary from high-achieving students saying that the competency-based model is harder because they actually have to master everything and be able to apply it. Most will say that memorizing for tests is much easier. (There is a great line in a trailer for Most Likely to Succeed where a teacher asks a student, “Would you rather learn or take the test?” And she, with more than a bit of attitude, replies “Take the test.”) That suggests to me that students in competency-based school will be more competitive than they might have been otherwise. This should show up in the college tests, their personal essays, and a richer résumé of extended learning, internships, projects, or capstones.
However, as the focus moves from being smart to being a good learner, we also need to be prepared for emotional pushback if students become afraid that they might not be one of the “smartest.” Intervening to help previously high-achieving students understand the growth mindset is going to be an important step as part of their identity as the “smart kid” might unravel. However, based on my discussions with high GPA students, as long as the rules of the game are fair, transparent, and consistent, this group of kids, highly extrinsically motivated, will adjust to any set of rules.
c. Most districts and schools have not yet opened up the ceiling. Students should be able to advance beyond grade level in a CBE model, yet we want to guard against “faster is better,” so it is important to have opportunities along the way for students to go deeper or faster. There are a few examples of districts allowing students to advance to the next grade level even if it is in another school (e.g., from eighth to ninth grade), but it has not become routine yet. From what I can tell, it works best if the units of courses have been placed online so that students can simply keep working. Teachers will have to be familiar with the discipline and curriculum in the higher levels and/or students have to have access to teachers who do. Within a school, it is possible to simply have students participate in the more advanced class. The topic of advancing into college level is discussed below.
d. If we follow the logic of CBE, more students will be more ready for college. If we are teaching habits of work, emphasizing higher order skills, and making sure students have developed the prerequisite skills needed to do the grade level skills, they simply have to build a stronger foundation for lifelong learning. These are three big “ifs,” and not all CBE schools are doing all three. (For example, I’m not convinced at all that scaffolding is the same as building prerequisite skills. It seems to serve an entirely different purpose.) So far, we are only seeing evidence that students are doing better in those models that are very intentional about their strategy to “meet students where they are.”
The point is, competition may actually increase if we are able to make progress toward greater equity. We should never, ever be afraid of that. With pressure for more types of post-secondary options, we should see more innovations in higher education, more products, more programs. Our communities and countries can only benefit in better education – even if it is just going to make it harder for fake news to tear away at our democracy.
Calibrating Proficiency-Based Diploma with College Entrance
There are an entirely different set of questions related to the intersection of competency education between K12 and IHE that we have barely started to explore – alignment and calibration. The issues raised in the section are above all based on CBE high schools within the current policies, practices, and dynamics of institutions of higher education that serve graduating high school graduates. But what happens if we start to expect that all IHE be clear about performance levels, at least in the freshmen year or Level 13, even if they aren’t competency-based? (more…)