Archive for January, 2014

Standards-Based

LAST UPDATED:

In education, the term standards-based refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating understanding or mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education. In schools that use standards-based approaches to educating students, learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education—determine the goals of a lesson or course, and teachers then determine how and what to teach students so they achieve the learning expectations described in the standards.

In the United States, most standards-based approaches to educating students use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “proficiency” in a given course, subject area, or grade level. The general goal of standards-based learning is to ensure that students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. If students fail to meet expected learning standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve proficiency or meet the learning expectations described in the standards. Standards-based learning is common in American elementary schools, but it is becoming more widely used in middle and secondary schools.

In most cases, standards-based learning, standards-based instruction, or standards-based education, among other similar terms, are synonyms for proficiency-based learning or competency-based learning (two terms that are themselves synonymous). Defining standards-based learning is further complicated by the fact that educators not only use a wide variety of terms for the general approach, but the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. A few of the other common synonyms include mastery-based, outcome-based, and performance-based education, instruction, or learning, among others. In addition, there is a subtle but significant difference between standards-based and standards-reference—see the explanation below.

Standards-Based vs. Standards-Referenced

The distinction between standard-based and standards-referenced is often a source of confusion among educators and the public—in part because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but also because the distinction between the two is both subtle and nuanced. In brief, standards-referenced means that what gets taught or tested is “referenced” to or derived from learning standards (i.e., standards are the source of the content and skills taught to students—the original “reference” for the lesson), while standards-based refers to the practice of making sure students learn what they were taught and actually achieve the expected standards (i.e., that students meet a defined standard for “proficiency”). In a standards-referenced system, teaching and testing are guided by standards; in a standards-based system, teachers work to ensure that students actually learn the expected material as they progress in their education.

Another way of looking at it is that standards-referenced refers to inputs (what is taught) and standards-based is focused on outputs (what is learned).

While a particular course may be standards-referenced, for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is standards-based in the sense that the term is predominately used by educators. However, all standards-based curricula, instruction, and tests are—by necessity—standards-referenced. For example, all fifty states in the United States have developed and adopted learning standards that schools and teachers are expected to follow when they create academic programs, courses, and other learning experiences (before the 1980s and 1990s, states did not have learning standards). In theory, these educational policies suggest that all American public schools either are or should be teaching a standards-referenced curriculum. Yet comparatively few public schools are authentically standards-based in the sense that students are required to demonstrate achievement of expected standards, and meet defined proficiency expectations, as they progress through their education. For a more detailed discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

The following examples will help to illustrate the distinction between standards-based and standards-referenced:

  • Assessment: Say a teacher designs a standards-referenced test for a history course. While the content of the test may be entirely standards-referenced—i.e., it is aligned with the expectations described in learning standards—a score of 75 may be considered a passing score, suggesting that 25 percent of the taught material was not actually learned by the students who scored a 75. In addition, if only test scores and assignments are summed and averaged, the teacher may not know what specific standards students have or have not met. For example, a student may be able to earn a “passing” grade in a ninth-grade English course, but still be unable to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking” or “demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings”—two ninth-grade standards taken from the Common Core State Standards. If the teacher uses a standards-based approach to assessment, however, students would only “pass” a test or course after demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills described in the expected standards. The students may need to retake a test several times or redo an assignment, or they may need additional help from the teacher or other educational specialist, but the students would need to demonstrate that they learned what they were expected to learn—i.e., the specific knowledge and skills described in standards.
  • Curriculum: In most high schools, students typically earn credit for passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than on the same learning standards being applied to all students equally. And because grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on different learning expectations (for example, some courses may be “harder” and others “easier”), students may pass their courses, earn the required number of credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring the most essential knowledge and skills described in standards. In these cases, the curricula taught in these schools may be standards-referenced, but not standards-based, because teachers are not evaluating whether students have achieved specific standards. In standards-based schools, courses, and programs, however, educators will use a variety of instructional and assessment methods to determine whether students have met the expected standards, including strategies such as demonstrations of learningpersonal learning plansportfoliosrubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few.
  • Grading: In a standards-referenced course, grading may look like it traditionally has in schools: students are given numerical scores on a 1–100 scale and class grades represent an average of all scores earned over the course of a semester or year. In a standards-based course, however, “grades” often look quite different. While standards-based grading and reporting may take a wide variety of forms from school to school, grades are typically connected to descriptive standards, not based on test and assignment scores that are averaged together. For example, students may receive a report that shows how they are progressing toward meeting a selection of standards. The criteria used to determine what “meeting a standard” means will defined in advance, often in a rubric, and teachers will evaluate learning progress and academic achievement in relation to the criteria. The reports students receive might use a 1–4 scale, for example, with 3s and 4s indicating that students have met the standard. In standards-based schools, grades for behaviors and work habits—e.g., getting to class on time, following rules, treating other students respectfully, turning in work on time, participating in class, putting effort into assignments—are also reported separately from academic grades, so that teachers and parents can make distinctions between learning achievement and behavioral issues. See the following example of a standards-based report card:

Sample_Standards-Based_Report_Card

Competency-Based Learning

LAST UPDATED:

Competency-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education. In public schools, competency-based systems use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “competency” or “proficiency” in a given course, subject area, or grade level (although other sets of standards may also be used, including standards developed by districts and schools or by subject-area organizations). The general goal of competency-based learning is to ensure that students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. If students fail to meet expected learning standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve competency or meet the expected standards.

Defining competency-based learning is complicated by the fact that educators not only use a wide variety of terms for the general approach, but the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. A few of the more common synonyms include proficiency-basedmastery-basedoutcome-basedperformance-based, and standards-based education, instruction, and learning, among others.

In practice, competency-based learning can take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school—there is no single model or universally used approach. While schools often create their own competency-based systems, they may also use systems, models, or strategies created by state education agencies or outside educational organizations. Competency-based learning is more widely used at the elementary level, although more middle schools and high schools are adopting the approach. As with any educational strategy, some competency-based systems may be better designed or more effective than others.

Recently, the terms competency-based learning or competency-based education (and related synonyms) have become more widely used by (1) online schools or companies selling online learning programs, and (2) colleges and universities, particularly those offering online degree programs. It should be noted that “competency-based learning,” as it is typically designed and implemented in K–12 public schools, can differ significantly from the forms of “competency-based learning” being offered and promoted by online schools and postsecondary-degree programs. At the collegiate level, for example, competency-based learning may entail prospective adult students receiving academic credit for knowledge and skills they acquired in their former careers—an approach that can reduce tuition costs and accelerate their progress toward earning a degree. It should also be noted that many online schools and educational programs, at the both the K–12 and higher-education levels, have also become the object of criticism and debate. Many for-profit virtual schools and online degree programs, for example, have been accused of offering low-quality educational experiences to students, exploiting students or public programs, and using the popularity of concepts such as “competency-based education” to promote programs of dubious educational value. When investigating or reporting on competency-based education, it is important to determine precisely how the terms are being used in a specific context.

Reform

Competency-based learning is generally seen as an alternative to more traditional educational approaches in which students may or may not acquire proficiency in a given course or academic subject before they earn course credit, get promoted to the next grade level, or graduate. For example, high school students typically earn academic credit by passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than on the same consistent standards being applied to all students equally. And since grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on divergent learning expectations (i.e., some courses might be “harder” and others “easier”), it may be possible for students to pass their courses, earn the required number of credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring important knowledge and skills. In extreme cases, for example, students may be awarded a high school diploma but still be unable to read, write, or do math at a basic level. A “competency-based diploma” would be a diploma awarded to students only after they have met expected learning standards.

While the goal of competency-based learning is to ensure that more students learn what they are expected to learn, the approach can also provide educators with more detailed or fine-grained information about student learning progress, which can help them more precisely identify academic strengths and weakness, as well as the specific concepts and skills students have not yet mastered. Since academic progress is often tracked and reported by learning standard in competency-based courses and schools, educators and parents often know more precisely what specific knowledge and skills students have acquired or may be struggling with. For example, instead of receiving a letter grade on an assignment or test, each of which may address a variety of standards, students are graded on specific learning standards, each of which describes the knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire.

When schools transition to a competency-based system, it can entail significant changes in how a school operates and how it teaches students, affecting everything from the school’s educational philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, reporting, promotion, and graduation. For example, report cards may be entirely redesigned, and schools may use different grading scales and systems, such as replacing letter grades with brief descriptive statements—e.g., phrases such as does not meetpartially meetsmeets the standard, and exceeds the standard are commonly used in competency-based schools (although systems vary widely in design, purpose, and terminology). Schools may also use different methods of instruction and assessment to determine whether students have achieved competency, including strategies such as demonstrations of learninglearning pathwayspersonal learning plansportfoliosrubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few.

Debate

While there is a widespread agreement that students should be held to high academic expectations, and that public schools and teachers should make sure that students acquire the most important knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in adult life, there is often disagreement and debate about the best way to achieve these goals. For this reason, debates about competency-based learning tend to be focused on the methods used by schools, rather than the overall objective of the strategy (i.e., all students meeting high standards and achieving proficiency—a goal that few dispute).

Proponents of competency-based learning may argue that the approach greatly improves the chances that students will learn the most critically important knowledge, concepts, and skills they will need throughout their lives, and that competency-based learning can help to eliminate persistent learning gapsachievement gaps, and opportunity gaps. For these reasons, advocates of competency-based learning argue that the practice is a more equitable approach to public education, since it holds all students to the same high standards regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, or whether they attend schools in poor or affluent communities (uneven standards being applied to minority and non-minority students, or the uneven quality of teaching and facilities from school to school, are believed to be major contributing causes of issues such as achievement gaps). Proponents may also point to the weaknesses or failures of existing systems—which allow students to get promoted from one grade to the next and earn a diploma without acquiring important knowledge and skills—as evidence that competency-based approaches, of whatever sort, are needed. For a related discussion, see social promotion.

Critics of competency-based learning may argue that the transition will require already overburdened teachers to spend large amounts of time—and possibly uncompensated time—on extra planning, preparation, and training, and that competency-based learning can be prohibitively difficult to implement, particularly at a statewide level. Critics may also take issue with the learning standards that competency-based systems utilize, or with the specific features of a system used in a particular school. For example, parents often express concern that the abandonment of traditional letter grades, report cards, transcripts, and other familiar academic-reporting strategies will disadvantage students who are applying to colleges and universities (because the reporting strategies will be unfamiliar to college-admissions professionals, or because competency-based systems may eliminate many of the competitive dimensions of academic achievement, such as GPAs or class rank, that tend to favor high-achieving students). Others may question whether there is sufficient evidence that competency-based learning will actually work as intended.