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Senate Committee Gives Competency Education Major Boost in ESEA

Topics: Education Policy

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post celebrating the inclusion of competency education in a discussion draft for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). I called this entry to the national conversation a significant victory for competency education advocates.

As it turns out, that victory was just the beginning of the celebration. Today, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is expected to approve a bipartisan ESEA reauthorization bill called the Every Child Achieves Act that contains a new innovative assessment pilot program to advance competency education. (You can view the program on page 171 of the bill here).

This groundbreaking pilot would enable five states, or a consortium of states, to submit a proposal for an alternative assessment system to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. Once approved, a state would begin to implement its new assessment system either statewide or with an initial group of districts and would be allowed to incorporate that performance data into the state’s accountability system, if it wishes.

For a nation wrestling with big questions about how to better assess students and how long to assess students, this pilot program would provide an important picture of how to design assessment systems that do more than validate learning – they advance learning.

As someone who has worked intimately on the policy details on this pilot program, here are some of my favorite highlights of the Senate proposal.

  • Flexibility to Design a Balanced System of Assessments – The proposal would enable states to build a system of assessments that validates student mastery and generates important information to improve learning in real-time. This system could incorporate a combination of summative, interim, formative, performance-based, and high-quality local assessments.
  • Maintains Annual Assessments – Although the pilot would allow states to design more flexible assessment systems, the proposal would still ensure that any participating state continues to assess students once in each of grades 3-8 and once in high school. This annual testing requirement is critical to provide transparent and useful data for educators, students, and other key stakeholders.
  • Establishes Guardrails to Ensure High-Quality Implementation – States would be required to demonstrate that new assessments are comparable, valid, reliable, of high technical quality, and consistent with relevant, nationally recognized professional and technical standards. These guardrails are critical to ensure that every student is assessed in the same, high-quality way as his or her peers.
  • Aligns to Accountability – As mentioned above, states would have the authority to align their new assessment system immediately to their accountability system. This is important because the only way to determine the true impact of a new assessment approach is to ensure that all incentives in the system are aligned behind the same vision. This will ensure that assessment and accountability drive real-time improvements to student learning instead of the end of year, look-back approach of today’s systems.
  • Creates a Pathway to a New Education System – The pilot is designed to test and evaluate these new systems before making a rash jump to a new approach to education. Once a state can demonstrate that the system improves academic outcomes for students, the state can transition to the new system indefinitely. This creates a pathway to reform that may prove invaluable if it takes Congress as long to reauthorize the next version of ESEA than it has to fix today’s version – No Child Left Behind.

While Senate HELP Committee passage is a critical step – it is not the end of the journey. KnowledgeWorks will continue to advocate for this pilot program as the bill advances to the Senate floor and hopefully, as the House passes their own bill and the two chambers move to conference. But despite the long process ahead, we are encouraged that Washington, DC is ready to see what competency education can do to transform teaching and learning in our K-12 schools.