Personalized, Competency-Based Learning in North Dakota: What We’re Hoping to Learn

Topics: Impact and Improvement

At KnowledgeWorks we place a priority on building evidence for the practices, supports and services that provide the highest quality personalized education with the most equitable outcomes for each student. We are well into the third year on an effort to support four districts in pioneering student-centered learning practices as part of North Dakota’s personalized competency-based learning effort.

As a result, we are working to collect the data and create the insights that allow us to shift systems to be both more equitable and responsive. We also seek to democratize research so that the process remains owned by and accountable to those who are ultimately most impacted by it. We’re hoping to learn how we do research differently, how we involve stakeholders in the process and what some of the early insights have been.

Building capabilities for personalized, competency-based learning at scale

The North Dakota work aims to help participating districts create a system-wide plan and personalize implementation tailored for their district to:

  • Refine their vision for the future and create a supportive, transparent culture
  • Establish conditions for student agency and social-emotional learning
  • Develop and apply learner-centered practices to grow student ownership of learning
  • Grow rigor or critical skill and knowledge application
  • Develop a personalized, competency-based student learning continuum
  • Equip educators and leaders to sustain long-term progress toward the vision

We intuitively understand that having clear learning targets, meaningful and flexible assessments, personalized student supports and student ownership of their work are good things for learning. More than belief though, it is important to build the research and evidence base to demonstrate that these approaches work. As a result, we’ve been working with the Learning Innovations team at WestEd to evaluate the impacts of our efforts at scale.

Learn more about our approach in working with states to lay the groundwork for a community-wide vision for personalized learning.
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The evaluation and its components

In its role as a national leader in educational evaluation, assessment and technical assistance, WestEd understands the value and importance of innovations in teaching and learning that increase student mastery of academic knowledge, skills and dispositions, and supports the goals of educational equity. WestEd’s approach to evaluation is collaborative and focused on informing continuous improvement and assessing student outcomes. The evaluation includes sustained engagement with stakeholders and use of both qualitative and quantitative methods. There are two components to the evaluation:

Formative evaluation

Formative evaluation has been the primary focus of the first two years of the evaluation. The purpose of the formative evaluation is to collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data to examine the implementation of the personalized competency-based learning in the four districts. Evaluators will also use the data to assess the quality of the program delivery that is provided to the districts to engage in a feedback loop that supports continuous improvement efforts.

The formative evaluation examines:

  • Professional learning and technical assistance provided by KnowledgeWorks
  • Progress and quality of implementation of personalized, competency-based learning practices in the four districts
  • Changes observed in the schools and districts with regard to organization/structures, instructional practices and student engagement
  • Perspectives of student, parent, teacher, leader and support personnel on the personalized, competency-based learning model

Summative evaluation

Summative evaluation will take more of the focus starting now in year three of the project and is designed to answer questions about the impact for students of participating in a personalized, competency-based learning model. The evaluation will look at the impact on both participation and academic and non-academic outcomes. A quasi-experimental design study will be used to assess impact.

The summative evaluation will examine:

  • Systemic shifts to empower student ownership of learning and the transformation to personalized competency-based learning environments
  • Equity of learning outcomes for all students and subgroups of the population
  • The degree to which students have the academic skills necessary for success in postsecondary education
  • Engagement in learning and essential workplace and career ready skills
  • On time high school graduation rates
  • Successful transition of students into career and post-secondary education

The work to change school districts into personalized, competency-based learning systems is multi-faceted and requires a long-term outlook. In the middle of year three, we’ve laid a strong foundation for understanding the early impacts of our efforts in North Dakota. As we continue our efforts to democratize our research practices and build the evidence base, we’re excited for what’s to come.

This article was written by Geoff Zimmerman. Formerly with KnowledgeWorks, Zimmerman is the Principal at Shared Measure, a consulting firm that works with organizations and schools to develop innovative strategies around shared measurement and data systems, outcomes and indicators, evaluation, continuous improvement, and organizational learning and development.

These four districts in North Dakota share milestones reached in two years of pioneering personalized, competency-based learning – and the distance learning challenges it helped them meet.