States across the nation are turning their aspirations for college and career readiness for all students into action. They are moving beyond policy and practice centered on a floor — aiming for students to attain minimal proficiency on basic academic standards — to a new focus on ensuring that all students develop the capacity to demonstrate mastery of content and skills toward and beyond college and career readiness.
With this shift comes a new realization and greater urgency. The traditional system — in which students move ahead, year after year, regardless of whether they have reached a level of understanding that prepares them for what comes next — has perpetuated learning gaps for students that only grow over time. It has contributed to a system that restrains students — far too often, students of color, low-income students, English language learners (ELLs) and students with disabilities — from ever meeting the level of preparation they need for college and career.
In some states, leaders and educators have determined that to realize the promise of high expectations for all students that reflect a clear learning progression toward and beyond college and career readiness, students will need access to a far more personalized approach to learning. The traditional time-based system, they have concluded, has not served all students well — even when policy and practice were centered on a floor of minimal proficiency. The system holds little hope for helping all students reach, and have the opportunity to exceed, the level of preparation needed for college and career readiness. In these states, there is an increasing urgency to move away from the traditional system that has produced such inequitable results and toward a competency-based system in which students and their mastery of knowledge and skills — not time and the calendar — form the center.
Across states, what this competency-based system looks like, and how states transition to it, will vary based on state priorities and context — which only reinforces the value of state leadership to find the route that fits best. But one thing is true across all states — the journey to change from a traditional system to a competency-based system that succeeds in helping far more students be prepared for college and career will require strong and steady leadership. This work is complicated and challenging, but worthwhile. This paper is designed to provide guidance to state leaders to ensure that their efforts translate into the right actions in districts and schools and then into solid results for students. (July 2014)
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