Competency Education in Colorado Takes a Giant Step Forward

June 28, 2013 by
CO State Board of Ed

CO State Board of Ed

Charlie Toulmin from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation sent me information about Colorado’s new high school graduation requirements. I’ve taken my time in writing about it as it is a forward thinking policy with a number of possible implications. For those of you thinking about state policy it’s worth taking a look as it a pushes forward while still leaving room for local control. Given that districts are responsible for schools in all states with the exception of Hawaii and where there has been state takeovers, the Colorado high school graduation policy highlights the balancing between state and local policy. It’s also a good policy study for Boards of Education who are thinking about what their next step might be beyond seat-time waivers.

I’ve highlighted a few elements of the policy, including development of a meaningful diploma, floor of competency, and new state roles.  As you read through this policy, I think you will find, as I did, that Colorado established a policy that allows districts to advance aggressively toward a competency-based system, but also allows others to continue to be time-based and credit-based in their structures.

What Does a Meaningful Diploma Mean?  The purpose of the GGC was to establish a minimum expectation for a meaningful diploma. In doing so, they considered multiple perspectives:

  • alignment with the description of postsecondary and workforce readiness;
  • alignment with the postsecondary academic admission standards for public four-year institutions;
  • recognition of multiple and diverse pathways to a diploma;
  • articulation through a standards-based education system;
  • attainment of skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century; and
  • importance of academic and career  planning.

It would be interesting to see what considerations other states might use to decide what “meaningful” means. In New Mexico, we might consider lifelong learning. Other states with lower voter participation rates might want to consider civic participation.

Setting the Floor of Competency: The policy sets Colorado’s minimum College and Career Ready Determinations for English, mathematics, science, and social studies at proficiency levels on the state assessments, higher education cut scores for placement in credit bearing classes, industry certificates, and the military’s cut scores for academic consideration for preferred career training. Students must demonstrate proficiency in each academic discipline in at least one of the assessments.

So how does a district know that a student is competent? The policy goes on to list a menu of assessments and cut scores including SAT, ACT, state assessment, AP, IB, verified district capstone, concurrent college course, the military ASVAB, or industry certificate. (See the end of the post for the menu of assessments and cut scores).
From what I can tell, a student can get an 18 on the ACT in English and declare that they have met the minimum high school graduation requirements. It makes me wonder —

  • Will students not have to take the PARCC assessment in ELA if they have demonstrated proficiency on the ACT? Certainly there are some cost savings there. Are we going to see districts add on other high school credit requirements?
  • Will some assessments produce higher rates of proficiency than others across special populations? Are we creating a market of assessments?
  • Will students be able to start building up college credits once they demonstrate proficiency on any assessment or will higher education only accept some assessments?

Re-Alignment of Roles: It struck me while reading this document that the CSBE has a strong sense of their leadership role. The section on their beliefs that are guiding this effort is visionary, clear and compelling. It provides a solid understanding of the direction the state is taking that helps those involved in implementation under the spirit of the policy. (See page 3 of the policy)

Furthermore, the policy clearly outlines the roles for the local districts and their boards as compared to that of the CSBE. The CSBE clearly sets its responsibility for ensuring ongoing alignment and updating the guidelines as necessary. Districts have lots of room for innovation and flexibility in policies. If they want to move forward with a competency-based approach they can do so. If they want to stay focused on time-based credits, that’s okay as well. The bottom-line is that they are going to have to figure out a way to help kids advance to the level of those cut scores.

Driving Toward Deeper Learning? The CSBE policy expects students to be able to demonstrate critical thinking and reasoning, information literacy, collaboration, self‐direction, and invention. The policy assumes that given that the skills are embedded in the Colorado Academic Standards any coursework aligned with the CAS should prepare students with these skills. They also open the door to students demonstrating these skills through extracurricular activities, service learning experiences, and capstone projects.

So they’ve unlocked the door, but it’s going to take more clarity to really open the door for high quality learning experiences and feedback to help students really fine-tune the “soft” skills that are “hard” for students to learn in traditional classrooms. It looks like the CSBE has positioned themselves for performance assessments with the options to use district verified capstone assessments  or  additional mechanisms that may be developed to assess competency. Districts that want to develop a strong system of performance assessments with calibration to ensure quality should be able to do so under this policy.

More Flexibility in Use of Time? My understanding is that the Carnegie unit is not embedded in the Colorado education code but still has impact in terms of how it is embedded in operational practices and policy, including funding.  The policy addresses at least some of these issues by explicitly stating that local districts may permit more or less time for students to earn their diploma. We need someone who knows Colorado policy to determine if this policy is really going to allow districts to move beyond all the ways we lock schools into calendars and time-based instruction.

Transparency and Equity:  There are some pieces of the policy that sets expectations for the transparency and equity…but I think the CSBE will probably have to return to strengthen this sooner than later. The new guidelines demand transparency about what it is going to take to graduate but not where students are on their journey toward it. The language below that requires districts to provide information on the graduation requirement but only recommends that students be informed of where they are on the progression toward it.

There isn’t much language about equity in the policy or the expectations of the role of districts in addressing it.  The CSBE does do a good job at addressing the tension about what it means to be college-bound or career-bound. Education policy struggles with the fact that not every student is going to immediately go to a 4-year college upon graduation. That leaves districts and schools trying to make sense of how to respond to the short-term interests of students (“I need to get a good job to save for college”) from longer-term interests (“I want to be a computer scientist”) while also taking a constructive leadership role to address the ongoing inequity of the U.S.

The CSBE addresses this head-on in their Guiding Beliefs (page 3) with the statement: Expectations should remain high for all students, regardless of their post high school plans. Colorado has clearly articulated an expectation that all students graduate ready for postsecondary AND the workforce. Students not going to college face equally challenging skill and knowledge requirements for successful entry into the workforce. All students should be prepared at high levels to thrive as engaged and productive citizens in a dynamic global economy.

Alignment with Higher Education, Military and Employers:  Similar to the work underway in Maine, the policy states that the CSBE will work with the Colorado Commission of Higher Education to create a model high school transcript which communicates high school competency and not merely seat time or course credit.

It also goes on to say that state institutions will embrace the role of ongoing realignment with the CSBE working with the Colorado Commission of Higher Education, the Department of Defense, and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to “monitor entrance competencies, inform the revision of college remediation policy, quantify workforce benchmarks, and contribute to the college and career readiness cut point thresholds on future multi-state tests for students across the country.”

Process: Colorado used a thorough process for setting the new direction for graduation requirements for local boards to meet or exceed. The process was outlined in H.B. 07-1118 adopted by the General Assembly in 2007.  A Graduation Guidelines Council was created to develop recommendations for the State Board of Education. The next step was the General Assembly’s 2008 comprehensive legislation setting up an aligned system of standards and assessments. In 2012 the Graduation Guidelines Council (GGC) was reconvened, engaging with constituents through 40 meetings around the state. Their recommendations were adopted by the State Board of Education(CSBE) in spring 2013.

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 11.33.07 AM

You can turn to page 4 in the policy to see this table more clearly.

This is a fascinating policy and I’m sure it will become even more interesting as it is implemented. We would love to hear other people’s opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of the policy, the potential implications, and whether it makes sense for other states to adapt this policy for their own.


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  1. Comment by Chris Sturgis 7:47 pm, June 28, 2013

    Just had an interesting email conversation about this policy — is getting an 18 on the ACT in English the same as demonstrating competency in ELA at a specific learning target? or it is one aspect of demonstrating competency at that level? Would we think of it as a 3 in terms of Blooms or Marzano’s taxonomy…but it would require an application of those skills to demonstrate a 4, knowledge utilization.

    How would one think about the specific standards that have been met when one gets an 18 on ELA? And if a student gets an 18 on ACT in English, how does this help them understand where they are on their learning progression…because obviously an18 isn’t a terminal point…they can keep building their skills and applying these skills in college level courses, right?

    Still…this policy strikes me as a big step forward in terms of pragmatism, cost-consciousness, and allowing districts to innovate or not as they see fit. It’s not perfect in terms of educational philosophy/pedagogy nor perfection of system alignment …but it does reflect where our practice has developed but keeps the door open for future innovations.

  2. Comment by Taylor White 6:55 pm, July 2, 2013

    Thanks for this post, Chris! I have a few comments—some in response to the post and some on the issue more generally.

    First things first, the policy won’t actually take effect statewide until 2020 and is expected to be tweaked between now and then to respond to challenges/successes of early implementers. This could be a good thing (obviously), but it could also be a bad thing if tweaking means lowering or otherwise weakening expectations. Given CO’s past performance on some of these exams, I wouldn’t be surprised to see pushback against these cut scores mount in the years ahead—particularly given that only about 60% of the class of 2012 scored 18 or above on the ACT English exam—one of the easier tests on the list right now.

    A few questions/concerns about the assessments themselves:
    -Why is CO’s cut score for math 19 when ACT says a 22 is a better indicator of college readiness (w/o remediation)?
    -AP of 3+ and IB of 3+ are very different….IB is on a seven point scale, while AP is on 5 point scale (and is normed)—not sure if there are any meaningful practical implications for this distinction, but having taught both AP & IB courses, I think these cut scores actually set a really low bar for IB kids.
    -Are we comfortable with the state calling these “Competency Demonstration” options? Many of these aren’t measuring “competencies” at all. Some may be (IB, for example, or the “verified district capstones”) but does this language seems problematic if the hope, long-term, is to move more districts to competency-based systems (truly competency-based). It basically makes it easier for everyone to think they’re doing CBE (even if they’re assessing competency using norm-referenced standardized tests)!
    -I absolutely think we’ll see a market of assessments develop, per Chris’s comment in her post. Some of these scores will be easier to reach than others, and I worry we’ll see schools funneling particular kids to the easiest, cheapest assessments. Equity issues abound…

    One thing I wish was in there but isn’t….:
    -By and large, I think this is a really interesting policy that’s done a good job accounting for the state’s local control traditions. Like Chris, I like that it lets districts choose time-based or competency-based systems and that it provides a range of options for students to demonstrate they’ve met the state’s standards (even if I think there are some problems with using these assessments interchangeably…). I also see value in setting “floors” for what students know and can do (even if imperfect…). My biggest critique of the policy is that the state does not appear to have any plans to provide special support for pilots or demonstration districts. As we’ve seen in other states that provide flexibility for districts to innovate with competency-based systems, very few districts take advantage of the opportunity unless they have a lot of support and some concrete examples to emulate. Adams 50 is a worthy case-study, but it alone won’t be enough to push districts to innovate their way toward meaningful change and improvement. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s enough to get people thinking about the value of a HS diploma, to set the state’s floor, and to align things more closely with higher ed in the state. Those are certainly worthy accomplishments. But even still, with a seven year timeline and no plan for pilots/exemplars/etc., I worry the momentum and opportunity for substantial change may be lost.

    On More Flexible Use of Time:
    -It’s tough to tell whether the policy is “really going to allow districts to move beyond…” traditional uses of time. The language just says something vague like “allow students to graduate in more or less time” to graduate…something like that. Right after the policy was approved, I called to ask whether the state would provide extra money for students to spend more than 4 years in HS or if they would change the state’s “aging out” policies (funding until 21, or 22 w/special circumstances, as far as I know). No one got back to me, but on Twitter CDE responded to my tweet saying that they were not sure yet (about both issues) and that there were a lot of details yet to be worked out. So…we’ll see…BUT, the new funding bill that passed earlier this year will move the state from average daily attendance calculations to something called average daily membership. This basically allows for funding based on averages rather than a single day count on October 1. More significantly, the bill counts ALL secondary students counted under average daily membership as FTE students. This should (and is intended) to incent schools to offer non-traditional, credit-bearing opportunities (e.g. internships, dual-enrollment courses, expeditions, flexible scheduling, etc.)–many options that would challenge the time-based credit paradigm,

    The funding bill will also allocate ~$440 per pupil (not sure if there’s a sunset clause for this provision or not) to help schools implement new initiatives like Common Core & PARCC, new graduation requirements, teacher eval systems, etc. So…that might help with my concern above about the state’s support of exemplars or demonstration sites, though $440 is not that much money and there is A LOT going on in CO these days….

    Of course…not much will happen with that bill unless the ballot initiative (#22) to raise taxes passes in November. Time will tell!

    All of this is to say that CO’s policy is a step in the right direction, if an imperfect one. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the state and whether/how quickly other states follow…

  3. Comment by Chris Sturgis 3:48 pm, July 3, 2013

    I have gotten so many emails about the Colorado policy. Amy Anderson from the Donnell-Kay Foundation[ one of our funders] wrote to me about the power of higher education to encourage or limit innovation. Got me to thinking — kids face two separate sets of requirements, one to graduate from high school and the other to get into college. The two will probably never be exactly the same and both are equally important for how K-12 innovates or not.

    With her permission I’m sharing Amy’s comments:

    While it [the CO graduation policy] opens up the space to allow for competency, it also allows people to stay in the old time/Carnegie-based system (which I think most districts will choose to remain in).

    The big thing that could dramatically change things for our state is if the higher education admissions requirements change in the state. There is currently a task force meeting whose recommendations are due out in December of this year. There has been some talk in that group about moving to allowing for admissions that are more competency based; however, the struggle the group has had is in figuring out how to manage such an admissions process. If higher ed allowed for and started looking at a different set of evidence/information/criteria for admissions, local districts, schools, and parents would be more motivated to make changes.

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