Why is competency-based education so hard to study?

Do we need new paradigms to measure student outcomes and growth?

Such a taxonomy of competency-based models could also start to enumerate the different ways that different systems conceive of student outcomes. Growth in a competency-based system is most straightforward if you have a singular curriculum that students work their way through. For example, at Milan Village School in New Hampshire, students work their way through numbered playlists; there, student growth is reflected in the relative pace at which students master each step of the math curriculum.

But as the RAND paper points out, some competency-based schools place more emphasis on “student choice,” including in terms of curricular pathways or student-designed projects. The concept of choice—which I think is equally general and hard to really measure in a meaningful way—introduces a whole new set of challenges around how we measure growth.

If students are free to blaze more individualized paths, it will be difficult to compare their progress with other students’ at a single moment in time, much the way research (and current accountability regimes) require. Besides making it harder to compare students at one time, we may also need to be attuned to the “hockey stick” growth effect that some schools competency-based models like MC2 have observed. Students need to learn how to learn in a competency-based model that gives them greater choice; once they do this, they may “take off” in their learning.

In other words, there may be a delay, and then a spike in progress as students learn to take ownership of their learning. Much as the RAND report alludes to, this likely requires a longer view of student growth than the “snapshot” approach we often take to assess outcomes.

Julia Freeland researches innovative policies and practices in K-12 education, with a focus on competency based education policies, blended learning models, and initiatives to increase students’ social capital. This article first appeared in the Clayton Christensen Institute.