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Mastery Learning TECHNOLOGICALLY Possible

February 28, 2013

THE Journal writer Leila Meyer’s article “Policy Changes Needed for Shift to Competency Based Model” opens with this paragraph:

Schools need to move away from the current factory model based on seat-time credit requirements and toward a new competency-based learning model that supports mastery-based, student-centered, personalized learning environments, according to CompetencyWorks and theInternational Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). A new report, “Necessary for Success: Building Mastery of World-Class Skills – A State Policymakers Guide to Competency Education” from CompetencyWorks and iNACOL, outlines the policy changes required to make this shift to competency-based education.

Among the policies underway as described in the article are:

  • Redefining credits as competencies of what students know and can do;
  • Establishing proficiency-based diplomas and grading systems;
  • Providing credit flexibility to move away from seat-time requirements;
  • Enabling waivers for innovative schools; and
  • Offering support for building systemic approaches to challenge the traditional time-based system of the Carnegie unit.

As I read this list, I immediately saw that each of these is in place in New Hampshire, where I last served as School Superintendent and am currently doing educational consulting work. But so far, no one has moved completely in this direction with the notable exception of some charter schools that deal with disaffected students. I know from experience leading a high performing district that the notion of replacing grade-levels-based-on-age or grading-systems-based-on-ranking (i.e. A,B, C, or a numeric scale) with a competency system (i.e. met standard) would be unacceptable. I know that working with schools who are among the 70% failing based on NCLB standards that moving toward a competency system would run counter to improving their scores on the tests that resulted in their designation as “failing”. So… except for the charter schools who consciously color outside the lines we’re stuck with the factory system. This is the context of the comment I made on this article:

I have long advocated mastery learning over the bell curve… but… as long as the US remains stuck in test-based-accountability we will not be able to move to competency based instruction. Why? Because the standardized accountability tests are based on the assumption that students learn at the same rate as everyone in their age cohort… and if they don’t learn as much because they don’t learn as rapidly the students fall further and further behind because of their learning gaps. Breaking away from age-based grade levels is a difficult challenge. What’s really sad is that technology makes individualized learning possible which also makes it possible to break away from “grade levels”. Instead of using technology to individualize, though, we are suing it to crunch meaningless data about student performance on standardized tests that have nothing to do with mastery.

There are signs that teachers, school boards, and parents are starting to see the inherent flaws with test-based accountability. There are not many signs that USDOE and many politicians are seeing the light on this. If enough competency advocates get support, those who are disenchanted with our current testing regimen may have a better alternative to offer… and our students will learn much more when that happens.

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