Achieve, the leading advocate for college- and career-ready standards, posted an important policy resource this week: Advancing Competency-Based Pathways to College and Career Readiness: A State Policy Framework for Graduation Requirements, Assessment and Accountability.

Competency-based education has been part of Achieve’s strategic plan for a few years, but this report is the most important action to date.  The framework, designed with state policy makers in mind, was built with the help of 12 organizations from American Diploma Project and states and national organizations that have made this topic a priority: Nellie Mae Education Foundation, iNACOL, Digital Learning Now, CCSSO and NGA.

The purpose of the framework is to help states adopt and implement “competency-based pathways (CBP) that support ALL students in reaching college and career readiness.”

This stuff is complicated.  As I noted recently, “The shift from time to learning, from cohorts to competency, will be tough. It’s not easy or superficial–it’s a new and different way of organizing schools. It will probably take us a generation to fully embrace high common expectation, blended formats, and show what you know policies and practices.”

Achieve draws on the iNACOL sponsored Competency Works definition for competency-based pathways:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.

  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.

  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.

  • Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.

  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge.

  • The process of reaching learning outcomes encourages students to develop skills and dispositions important for success in college, careers and citizenship.

The framework is organized according to three major policy areas in which states have a significant role: graduation requirements, summative assessments, and state accountability systems.  Within each policy focus area, the framework addresses cross-cutting elements including the state role, quality and credibility, postsecondary alignment, and equity interests.  The framework addresses important policy questions, lays out options, and identifies important change levers.

A useful planning tool includes a continuum from a traditional system to a fully reimagined system–perhaps four to six years down the road.  Initial steps could include support of local efforts including seat-time waivers and innovation zones. Intermediates steps could include encouragement, support, and incentives for districts.  Long term, state policies will require a competency-based framework.

Central to the shift to competency is an updated reporting system based on learning more than time. New graduation requirements will need to ensure quality and consistency while gaining postsecondary credibility.

CBP requires new assessment systems to guide student learning and manage matriculation–and less reliance on heavyweight end of year exams. “While [accountability and public reporting] would remain critical under any competency-based system, in such systems summative assessment takes on a very specific use — validating instructional-level determinations of student proficiency/mastery of standards.” They also “serve an essential purpose in establishing comparability or moderating results across districts, schools and educators to ensure consistency of high expectations for all students.”

The report suggests state accountability systems can “provide signals to ensure quality; improve the rates of students mastering standards; and most important, reduce disparities in mastery of standards among students.”

In each category, the report offers thoughtful questions and useful advice for state policy makers.  In about a month there will be a more public release along with a school-level report card.

For more on this topic see  Competency Works and the Digital Learning Now SmartSeries paper The Shift From Cohorts to Competency.  And, check out these Getting Smart posts:

Disclosures: Digital Learning Now! is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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