How Competency-Based Accountability Promotes Personalized Learning

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, recently caught up with New Classrooms Co-founder and CEO Joel Rose to talk about personalized learning and accountability systems. Below are a few excerpts from the interview, which you can read in full on EdWeek’s Straight Up blog.

On the tension between a standardized accountability system and personalized learning

While Teach to One is focused on personalization, the broader K-12 system is deeply oriented around standardization. This can set the stage for different kinds of challenges.

First, the way in which schools typically procure materials is oriented around the adoption of textbooks aligned to grade-level standards. In some states, new models like Teach to One that are focused on personalization may not meet states’ curricula requirements, many of which are the products of decades-old rules that never contemplated a world where we might not need to standardize.

Second, it takes pioneering teachers, principals, and district leaders to embrace the shift toward holistic personalization. They too operate in a world focused on standardization, and so making the shift to personalized learning requires vision and conviction. These early adopters will be critical, and we need more of them.

Third, there’s a real tension between a standardized accountability system that’s focused on grade level standards with the philosophies of personalized learning and meeting kids where they are. When the seventh grader is actually operating at a fourth-grade level, we have a hard choice to make: meet him where he is, knowing he’ll likely learn a lot but do poorly on the state test, or expose him to seventh-grade content, knowing he’s not likely to learn most of it, but may pick up a few points along the way.

If we’re ever going to fully embrace personalized learning, we need to embrace competency-based assessment and an accountability regimen that enables all students to achieve high standards in the long run while giving them a viable path to get there from where they currently are.

Why many state tests aren’t designed to meet students where they are

We all believe in high standards and accountability and want students to graduate high school college- and career-ready. But the reality is that far too many of them come into middle school far from that trajectory. In math, because so many of the skills and concepts build upon one another, the gaps that students have from prior grades keep them from succeeding with grade-level material. Schools today are wasting precious instructional hours teaching kids skills and concepts they simply aren’t ready to learn. That can turn them off to math, turn them off to school, and make the already difficult job of the teacher far less fulfilling.

The same is true for students at the top. Many are fully capable of going beyond what’s reflected in their state’s standards, but teachers simply aren’t able to offer them that opportunity because they’re accountable for performance on the grade-level test. An accountability system that expects all students to achieve the same standard of success in a single year regardless of their starting point is magical thinking. Programs like Teach to One meet students where they are and enable them to accelerate from that point forward, far beyond what they might otherwise do. But when students are learning skills and concepts from grade levels that are different than their enrolled grade, state assessments—which largely focus on grade-level standards—are far less likely to pick them up. And it’s forcing many students to have instructional experiences that are misaligned to what they truly need.

How states can retool assessment to meet this challenge

A better solution would be for states to develop a competency-based accountability structure that schools could opt in to, where they could track each student’s success against each of the standards. A state could, for example, issue a credential for Algebra once a student demonstrates mastery on something like 45 of the 51 related skills—regardless of how old they are when that hit that milestone. In this kind of system, schools would be accountable for the rate that students accelerate. If in one school students master 65 new skills and concepts, while in another they master 20, that tells us something about the overall school performance. It also gives students and parents far more insight into what students already know, what they still need to learn, and how their growth and performance compare to different peer groups. There are other approaches as well, but that’s the general direction we need to be going.

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