States slow to flex on new accountability systems

States slow to flex on new accountability systems

(Va.) Despite recent efforts of the Obama administration to provide states more flexibility in developing new accountability systems, school districts across the nation continue to rely on performance measures tied to conventional testing systems, according to a new report.

“It is time to move away from traditional assumptions about how schools should look, how teachers should teach, and how students should learn,” argued Maria Worthen and Lillian Pace, authors of a new policy paper in support of competency-based learning.

“These assumptions too often restrict learning to physical buildings, bell schedules, credit hours, and static, paper-based learning materials,” they wrote in the report released by International Association for K-12 Online Learning. “Many of these assumptions are further reinforced by federal, state, and local governments that incorporate them through outdated compliance requirements and funding structures.”

Frequently described as an alternative method for awarding course credit or lesson units – competency education applies as one of its hallmarks the notion that students advance as they obtain mastery. The approach also calls for meaningful, performance-based assessments and timely, differentiated support for individual learners.

Although 39 states have already adopted aspects of competency-based learning, the researchers report that too many districts continue to use the end-of-year assessments characterized by the outdated mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, which technically expired in 2007.

Such reliance remains even though the Obama administration has granted waivers to 43 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico from many NCLB’s mandates, including the law’s central accountability provision.

Nonetheless, the report’s authors said, states and districts remain largely confined to the traditional framework of NCLB.

“These assessments are administered at a single point in time and provide after-the-fact data that do not inform instruction,” the authors wrote, concluding that the resulting education system is one that places more emphasis on accountability goals than it does on the improvement of student learning.

“Current assessments that were designed to meet federal requirements do not measure the pace of student learning, do not gauge student mastery of competencies, and, therefore, do not help practitioners pinpoint where students are in their learning progression.”

Worthen sees a ray of hope in the new common set of standards for math and English language arts that is being implemented in most states.

“The Common Core standards are exciting because they give us a common hook, an internationally benchmarked set of college and career ready standards from which to develop the competencies and assessments.”

More beneficial than an end-of-year test, however, would be a series of periodic assessments given throughout the year that could give real-time feedback to students and teachers, Worthen said. The two major assessments aligned to the Common Core standards that are currently under development will offer states the option of interim assessments to guide instruction.

“Checking in with kids throughout the year through interim and course assessments to see how they’re progressing, and then compiling that data into a summative score at the end of the year would make testing more meaningful,” she said.

Competency-based learning also calls for individual support for students as they move through the curriculum. The advent of adaptive software, which can assess student knowledge and adjust learning experiences accordingly, is making this kind of personalized learning a practical classroom solution.

“What if we had an accountability system,” Worthen said, “that made sure that the moment a student showed early warning signs of struggle that educators had the knowledge that that was happening and had the tools and resources to fill in gaps and keep that student on track?”

Despite the barriers entrenched in state and federal law, the report says, many educational entities are already implementing competency-based policies, often alongside those that keep them in good standing with the federal accountability system. 

New Hampshire, the first state in the nation to move toward awarding credit for competency rather than seat time, is planning to submit a plan for what it calls Accountability 3.0 when it applies for renewal of its federal waiver this summer. 

The new system would enable the state to measure a full range of college- and career-ready knowledge and skills, shift toward personalized learning, and use meaningful student assessments to ensure effective academic support for students who need it.

The state assessment system in Rhode Island requires all graduating high school students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through a summative performance assessment. Districts may also require that students demonstrate their proficiency in the state’s learning standards through a performance-based exam, senior project, or digital portfolio.

In 2010, Forsyth County Schools in Atlanta received $4.7 million from the federal Investing in Innovation fund to develop an integrated data system that will help educators personalize learning for all students. The project will have the capability of matching students to activities and resources based on feedback from the assessment engine and student characteristics such as learning preferences and intervention successes.

While a full-scale revamping of federal education law may still be years away, Worthen explained in a phone interview, the success of early adopters like these will build support for a federal pilot program that would allow a small number of states to expand their competency-based assessment and accountability policies without the restraints of the current system.

“This paper was really designed to get people thinking about this vision and asking tough questions,” she said. “What do we need in terms of assessments, what do we need in terms of technology to make this a reality?”

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