Demonstrated Competence

“Students progress based on demonstrated competency.” That’s the fourth of ten elements of high quality digital learning from Digital Learning Now.  Watch a short video explanation.
The goal of school is learning but we still manage it based on time.  Students still progress a year at a time after a 180 day school year along with other kids their age.  Occasionally politicians call for an end to social promotion, but just mean making struggling students repeat a grade.  We didn’t really have a better way to manage matriculation in the era of data poverty.
More than twenty years ago Bob Slavin created a reading program called Success for All that creates dynamic reading groups based on regular assessment results.  It became one of  the first large scale efforts to teach students at their instructional level and to use assessment data to manage student progress.
Also more than 20 years ago Kathleen Cushman, writing for the Coalition of Essential Schools, wrote a great summary of Demonstrated Mastery, “If a school believes its chief task is to help students master thoughtful habits of mind, then the demonstration of that mastery-not the accumulation of credits, or the passing of time-must be the sole criterion by which students qualify for graduation.”
Digital learning makes it easier to deliver personalized learning, conduct regular assessments, and manage demonstrations of learning.   When students can move at their own pace, benefitting from frequent feedback, and collect evidence in a standards-based gradebook, it’s much easier to manage a competency based learning environment.
Alternative education provides good examples of competency-based learning. CIS’s Performance Learning Centers and AdvancePath (a Learn Capital portfolio company) provide individualized online instruction and encourage students to move as rapidly as possible.
Reinventing Schools Coalition is another example of a network of standards-based schools where students show what they know and where the notion of failing a grade is replaced by more time where necessary.
The SMARTER Balance Assessment Consortium appears to be planning a mixture of adaptive assessment and performance demonstrations that would support competency-based learning environments.
Digital Learning Now recommends that states:

  • Require matriculation based on demonstrated competency.
  • Do not have a seat-time requirement for matriculation.
  • Provide assessments when students are ready to complete the course or unit.

The problem that Element #4 is attacking is that “Grade level promotion has historically been dictated by birthdays, attendance and minimum achievement,” and “Instructional pacing, aimed at the middle of the class, may be too fast or too slow for some students who become frustrated, disengaged and unmotivated.”
Digital learning enables student-centered learning where learners progress based upon demonstrated competency.  It makes the all-too-common practice of social promotion obsolete. Digital learning makes it easy to adapt to situations where a student is ahead in one subject and behind in another.
For more, on competency-based learning, see the iNACOL resource:
It’s Not a Matter of Time: Highlights from the 2011 Competency-Based Summit
Sturgis, Patrick and Pittenger, July 2011
Summary:The It’s Not a Matter of Time paper highlights the key issues from the proceedings at the March 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit for advancing competency-based learning.
Cracking the Code: Synchronizing Policy and Practice for Performance-Based LearningPatrick and Sturgis, July 2011
The report sets a policy framework for advancing performance-based learning and builds on recommendations made during the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit convened by iNACOL and CCSSO earlier this year. The report recommends that states begin to transform policies from “rigid compliance” to “enabling policies,” by offering seat-time waivers or “credit flex” policies that allow for the flexibility to offer competency-based learning in K-12. The policy development is multi-stage — building towards a “comprehensive policy redesign” that would require school districts to offer competency-based credits; provide proper training and information systems; establish quality-control; support individual growth models for accountability; and align higher education with K-12 competency-based efforts.
When Success is the Only Option: Designing Competency-based Pathways for Next Generation LearningSturgis and Patrick, November 2010
This paper is an introduction to competency-based pathways, a necessary condition to realizing the potential of next generation learning. The most important finding from this investigation is that competency-based pathways are a re-engineering of our education system around learning – a re-engineering designed for success in which failure is no longer an option. This paper is the first of the series. The following papers (above) from Sturgis and Patrick in 2011 provide a much more detailed exploration into policy and practice for competency-based learning.
Clearing the Path: Creating Innovation Space for Serving Over-age, Under-credited Students in Competency-based PathwaysSturgis, Rath, Weisstein and Patrick, December 2010
This paper provides guidance on creating competency-based approaches for over-age, under-credited students that have fallen off the track toward graduation. Drawing on a wide range of expertise, this paper explores how states can create space for innovation, including design principles, minimum policy conditions and options for moving forward.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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