Potential Pitfalls for Ensuring Equity in Competency-Based Systems

June 9, 2017 by

This is the third blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

Even with the best school design imaginable, there is always a concern that inequity will rear its ugly head. We have to be vigilant in identifying where this might occur if we want to ensure competency-based systems live up to their promise. In our discussions with the Technical Advisory Group participants, we identified nine potential issues that may arise in personalized, competency-based systems. By identifying these issues, states, districts, and schools can create mitigating strategies and preemptively use data to look for early trends.

It is important to remember that most, if not all, of the following nine issues are also problematic in the traditional system. The difference is that competency-based schools make them transparent and take responsibility for addressing them. Districts and schools simply can’t ignore these issues and still fully engage students in putting their best efforts forward, reaching mastery, and making progress.

1. Are Pace and Progress Closely Monitored? The primary equity concern related to competency education is the fear that variation in pacing will mean that some students get left behind. However, the reality is that in traditional environments, gaps for students who lack core knowledge and skills already exist, and the time-based structure means these gaps only grow over time. What competency education requires is that we focus on students every day, giving them supports to stay on pace while still allowing them to have a variety of tempos in how they learn and ensuring they demonstrate mastery. The most developed competency-based schools monitor growth of students based on their learning trajectory, not just their pace on grade-level standards. Competency-based schools help students to set goals and teachers to reflect with students to identify gaps in skills that need to be addressed.

2. Are There Adequate Supports for Students to Ensure They Reach Proficiency and Make Progress? States, districts, and schools need to be thinking strategically about the most effective instructional strategies to help students with skill gaps (i.e., performance levels two or more levels below their expected grade level) to accelerate learning. Educators should engage in action research to identify the most effective evidence-based practices. In addition, districts and schools need to become more responsive to students who need additional support, including providing supports before, during, and after the semester. This will require different structures and budgeting strategies.

In competency-based education, students who are at or above grade level are also expected to progress even if it is to standards above their grade level. Thus, systems of supports in districts and schools need to take into consideration strategies to support 100 percent of the students.

3. Are Students Coached in the Lifelong Skills They Need to Develop Agency? Building student agency – the skills and mindsets to become self-directed learners – is an important element in implementing competency education, a feature of personalized learning, and an important part of college and career readiness. If schools do not invest in introducing protocols, practices, and tools for students to take responsibility for their education and fail to build the capacity for educators to coach students in lifelong learning skills (growth mindset, habits of work, social and emotional learning, and metacognition), students and teachers will be set up for frustration and possibly failure. If classrooms aren’t designed for students to take ownership, teachers remain stuck in the traditional classroom management practices. If students aren’t supported in developing the habits and mindsets, they will not put forth their best efforts and persist when they struggle in their learning.

4. Is the Process of Determining Proficiency Calibrated, Consistent, and Fair? In order to create both quality and equity, districts need to be consistent in how they determine proficiency, (i.e., they must calibrate the understanding of proficiency for standards and performance levels). When fully implemented, competency education should provide a structure in which proficiency is calibrated to maintain consistency in expectations and students receive adequate instructional supports to progress. But what if districts have different interpretations of what it means to be proficient at performance levels? What if they allow teachers to determine individually what it means to be proficient? States and districts play a critical role in establishing mechanisms for calibration. In particular, there should be efforts to create transparent mechanisms so that students and parents can easily check the level of rigor, as well.

5. Have New Definitions of Student Success that Lead to College and Career Readiness Been Established? Graduation expectations must include a broad understanding of college and career readiness that includes academics, higher order skills, and lifelong learning. If states and districts only set and measure academic achievement without including the expectation that students also need high level skills for problem-solving and to be self-directed learners, many students will find that they aren’t ready at all to be successful in college or in the workplace.

6. Is Personalization Designed for Reaching Common Goals and Discovering Unique Talents and Interests? In a personalized, competency-based system, the goal is for students to build the common skills needed for college and career readiness while also building upon their aptitudes, discovering their talents and interests, and building a strong positive identity. There is, of course, a worry that patterns of inequity might creep in that could lead to pathways with different expectations. However, a quality competency-based structure should guard against variability by holding students to the same high standards even though students will require more or less instructional support and time. Some competency-based schools are creating honors-level work that can be demonstrated in any class rather than within a specific honors course, allowing any student at any time to reach for the highest levels of learning. It is also important that the rigor or depth of knowledge of learning targets is calibrated and monitored to ensure that all students are offered equal opportunities for deeper learning.

There is no doubt that high schools are going to be challenged to help every student reach proficiency in every domain, given that a four year clock starts ticking once students enter ninth grade with skills that may range five or more performance levels. Districts and high schools need to start early in creating goals and trajectories that help students reach college and career readiness rather than waiting until twelfth grade and either graduating students with lower skills or tacking on additional years of schooling.

7. How Will Schools Ensure All Students are Growing? Some are worried that achievement gaps will widen within competency-based education when higher income students with college-educated parents, more opportunities to learn, and more social capital will be able to leap forward, while other students flounder. Certainly, as described above, schools need to have in place scaffolding, opportunities to continue learning until proficient using multiple instructional strategies, and investment in building student agency. Furthermore, strong transition-to-college supports need to be in place for students who are first-time college goers. The most important thing to remember is that growth is the most important metric in competency-based education, not just proficiency at grade level. Students who are at lower performance levels may be shooting forward at rates of 1.25, 2, or even 3 levels per year but still not be at grade level proficiency.

Creating opportunities to learn and participate in enrichment activities in non-academic settings are also important. Arts, sports, and hobbies are all opportunities for students to both learn and reflect on their learning. More affluent students have greater access to informal mentors who support and encourage them, introduce them to a broad set of careers, and offer enrichment opportunities. Thus, intentional career and college exploration, opportunities to interact with people from a wide range of jobs and industries, and intentionally teaching students how to build and access a network will all be important.

8. Are Data Available that Enable Schools to Monitor Progress and Growth and Identify Students Who Need Additional Instructional Support? If educational experiences vary, they may also create or exacerbate/increase patterns of inequity unless careful attention is given to monitoring student progress and outcomes as well as to providing the necessary supports for all students to achieve mastery. Currently, there are few information management systems that provide data on student learning trajectories. Most continue to be structured around grade-level or course-based standards. It will be much easier to ensure that all students are growing and progressing when student information systems can provide a more comprehensive look at student progress over time and across domains.

9. Have Schools Developed Strategies to Stay Focused on Measuring and Recognizing Student Growth Given State Accountability Systems that May Only Focus on Grade Level? The federal and state requirements within accountability systems can pose a problem for competency-based systems by not recognizing progress when a student’s starting point is outside of age-based grade levels. Two examples:

  • A ninth grader reading at the third grade level at the start of the year reaches sixth grade level at the end of the year. However, the state accountability system will continue to mark the student as below proficiency despite high growth rate.
  • An eighteen-year-old student re-enrolls in high school with four high school credits and graduates two years later. However, the student is not included in the school’s “on-time” graduation rate and the district and school are never recognized for seeking to have 100 percent graduation rates through a strong re-engagement strategy.

The federal and state requirements within accountability systems can pose a problem for competency-based systems by not recognizing progress when a student’s starting point is outside of age-based grade levels. They also hold the traditional time-based system in place, with teachers feeling it is only fair to cover the standards included in grade-level tests when it is terribly unfair not to help students learn the prerequisite skills they need to master the grade-level standards. Using learning progressions across the K-12 continuum would provide better transparency for measuring each student’s entry point and the amount of growth over time. ESSA’s focus on multiple measures provides the opportunity to include individual student growth indicators.  

Stay tuned for the next blog in the series which will explore a set of equity strategies that every district and school should have firmly in place.

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