Author: Tyler Barnett

A Growing Movement: Behind the Shift to Competency-Based Diplomas

January 10, 2018 by

Why We Must Reconsider the High School Diploma

By at least one important metric, American education appears to be making progress. Our high school students are graduating at record rates, and the numbers have been steadily climbing in recent years.[i] However, behind this veil of graduation rates,[1] abundant evidence reveals that we still have a lot of work to do. Compared globally, the US still ranks in the bottom half of the industrialized world in graduation rates, and a sizeable attainment gap persists between whites and minorities.[ii] Among those who do graduate high school and enroll in postsecondary education, nearly half require remedial coursework.[iii] As a result, our college completion rates are alarmingly low—especially for minorities.[2] In fact, only 9.5% of students requiring remedial reading coursework in community colleges leave with a degree, while only 35% in four-year colleges graduate.[iv]

These results pose an especially dire forecast when one considers the increasing importance of postsecondary education. As Jobs for the Future adeptly noted in its 2017 recommendations for the reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act, “[t]here is a dire need for skilled workers and mounting evidence that postsecondary education has a direct impact on earnings. The shifting needs of the current economy make it clear that to attain real upward mobility, workers will need to be equipped with the education and skills that make them of high value to employers and able to adapt to changes in the workplace.[v]” It is likely the absence of the necessary training and skills that leads two thirds of hiring managers to say they cannot find qualified workers to fill even middle-skills jobs.[vi]

If we are to break the cycle of poverty, particularly among our minority communities, and if we are to ensure the economic welfare of our nation, the American education system must do something about our college matriculation and remediation rates. States and districts must find solutions to ensure that kids are prepared to succeed when they leave high school and not hamstrung with an unemployable skillset.

One such solution that many states are exploring is the competency-based diploma. Though policies differ among the states, competency-based diplomas (sometimes referred to as proficiency-based diplomas) typically discard traditional graduation credit requirements that rely heavily on the number of hours students spend in the classroom, instead requiring that students demonstrate certain competencies before earning credit for a course. Thus, competency-based diplomas create an advantage in that they inherently require individualized attention to each student’s mastery of standards, and they guard against time-based promotion. Only by ensuring that each student truly ascertains the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for postsecondary success can we improve college and career readiness.

The Movement for Competency-Based Diplomas

So, which states are shifting towards competency-based diplomas? To date, most states actually have laws allowing districts to issue competency-based diplomas, either by submitting a detailed proposal for a competency-based system to the state or by taking part in a state program in which districts can pilot a competency-based diploma. However, six states are taking the policy a step further and uniformly requiring that at least some portion of graduation requirements include the demonstration of proficiency for credit. Among those six states, two distinct approaches to the competency-based diploma have surfaced: a few states have fully proficiency-based graduation requirements, and a few have partially proficiency-based requirements. (more…)

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