By Karla Phillips and Carri Schneider

This post originally appeared on Flypaper

Mike Petrilli recently reopened an important conversation. Why is there still such a great disconnect between student and parent perceptions of student achievement, and reality?

Petrilli calls for “courageous language” to find a way to explicitly report to students and their families whether they are on track to be college and career ready. We totally agree with his suggestions and examples of better reporting and have been committed to helping states improve school report cards. We’ve even gone so far as to suggest an approach that mirrors what is now required on credit card reports. After all, don’t we owe the same level of full disclosure to students and their families?

One option that wasn’t discussed in the original blog that we think deserves some attention is competency-based learningalso called mastery-based or proficiency-based. We believe that competency-based systems create a more transparent, complete, and accurate picture of student achievement than the traditional time-based and cohort-based system.

In a competency-based system, students advance to higher levels of learning when they demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills regardless of time, place, or pace. Decisions of proficiency are based on true evidence and application of knowledge and not masked by the inclusion of participation, attendance, homework, and extra credit. The inclusion of “habits of work” and “non-cognitive skills” certainly matter, but they should not be conflated with student mastery of content standards. Reformers have long lamented grade inflation, but a truly competency-based system eliminates this issue.

While we agree transparency is critical, we have to address an even more pernicious problem. When we don’t ensure true proficiency of key concepts and skills, critical gaps in learning emerge. No one does a better job of illuminating this problem than Sal Khan. In his recent TED Talk, he suggests teaching for mastery and not test scores. He asks the question, “what if we built houses the way we teach math?” As in home building, we must ensure that the foundation is solid. If it is not, we can’t be surprised when problems develop later.

Competency-based education would prevent these gaps from developing. Our traditional, time-based education system advances students based primarily on their age, regardless of their depth of understanding. By not ensuring mastery, the current system pushes students forward who are not yet ready, leaving them with gaps in critical knowledge or fundamental skills that must be remedied later. Concurrently, the traditional system often prevents students from accelerating, engaging more deeply or pursuing additional academic challenges.

The purpose of competency-based education is not solely to allow students to move at their own pace or test out of classes. Competency-based education proposes to raise the bar and expectations for all students (see ExcelinEd’s Competency-Based Education Resource Page for more information). 

In a fully developed CBE system, there will be well articulated learning objectives and clearly defined and calibrated definitions of proficiency. State standardized assessments still play a critical role in validating local declarations of proficiency, but competency-based education proposes a mastery of key concepts and skills in all subjects and all grades and, even more importantly, for all students.

One thing we know for sure is that diplomas and credits based on seat-time and barely passing grades are giving students and families mixed messages at best and false signals at worst.

But let’s be honest. This transition will require a true growth mindset. Do we truly believe that all students can achieve? Do we really want full transparency? The truth can be a hard pill to swallow.

For more on Competency-Based Education see:


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