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REL Symposium Tackles Gaps and Challenges in Competency-Based Learning Research

Posted by Joshua Cox on December 14, 2016

On October 6, the Northeast College and Career Readiness Research Alliance (NCCRA) at REL Northeast & Islands and Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) hosted a research symposium that brought together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to discuss the current landscape of competency-based learning research. Held at EDC headquarters in Waltham, Mass., the symposium drew over 70 participants, including state-level policymakers, district and school administrators, teachers, students, and researchers.

We were incredibly fortunate to have keynote speaker Paul Leather, deputy commissioner of education in New Hampshire, kick off the event by providing an overview of how competency-based learning reform took root in his state and the research that supported this move. He also discussed New Hampshire PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education), the state’s pilot assessment and accountability program that focuses on providing alternate routes for students to demonstrate measurable progress in specific academic skills and competencies.

New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Education Paul Leather speaks obout his state’s competency-based learning reform during a REL Northeast & Islands research symposium on October 6.

New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Education Paul Leather speaks obout his state’s competency-based learning reform during a REL Northeast & Islands research symposium on October 6.

“I think we’re facing a new era for public education,” Leather said. “Our sense is our business community is asking for this, our parents are asking for this, and our institutes of higher education are asking for this,”

Following Leather’s keynote presentation, Dr. Aubrey Scheopner Torres, the founding researcher of NCCRA and current assistant professor of education at Saint Anselm College, facilitated a four-member panel discussion that explored gaps in existing competency-based learning research. Panel members included Leather; Dr. Erika Stump, policy researcher at the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine; Dr. Marc Brodersen, senior researcher at REL Central; and Dr. Salvatore Menzo, superintendent of Wallingford Public Schools in Connecticut.

“We had some really good conversation about what was best for students and how the research needed to provide opportunities for getting insights into the practices that were working and the challenges that were happening around competency-based learning,” Stump said.

Dr. Erika Stump, a policy researcher at the University of Southern Maine, talks about some of her research on competency-based learning, while fellow panelist Dr. Salvatore Menzo, superintendent of Wallingford (CT.) Public Schools, listens.

Dr. Erika Stump, a policy researcher at the University of Southern Maine, talks about some of her research on competency-based learning, while fellow panelist Dr. Salvatore Menzo, superintendent of Wallingford (CT.) Public Schools, listens.

Throughout the day, attendees also were invited to participate in multiple breakout sessions that explored research focused on the following topics:

  • Local implementation of a state-mandated proficiency-based diploma policy in Maine
  • The importance of assessment in competency-based systems
  • Exploring and measuring student experiences of competency-based learning
  • Connections between competency-based learning and blended and out-of-school learning
  • Contextual factors impacting competency-based education implementation, including state policy and college admissions
  • The impact of subject matter on competency-based learning implementation

For more details on the breakout sessions, view the full symposium agenda.

Additionally, the symposium included, “The Student Voice,” a panel discussion comprised of six students from four New Hampshire high schools that had implemented competency-based learning. REL Northeast & Islands researcher Sarah Ryan facilitated the panel; here are some of the student comments:

  • “One of the most important things that it [competency-based learning] means to me is that I get to take charge of my own learning.”
  • “You can fail a test and you can retake it. This teaches you to never give up, a skill you need throughout life.”
  • “In competency-based learning, I have to keep track of my formative assessments. I have to be organized and on track with my homework independently.”
  • “Teachers give you guidelines for a project, but you get to decide how to do it.”
  • “With competency-based learning, you start learning what your weaknesses are as a freshman in high school, not a freshman in college.”
New Hampshire high school students share some of their experiences with competency-based learning in in their schools during a REL Northeast & Islands research symposium on October 6.

New Hampshire high school students share some of their experiences with competency-based learning in in their schools during a REL Northeast & Islands research symposium on October 6.

Several symposium participants pointed to the student panel as the highlight of the day. One attendee noted, “Hearing from those directly impacted was very valuable. I plan to share with staff to further support our move to competency-based learning.”

As the NCCRA support team at REL Northeast & Islands, my colleague Jessica Brett and I want to send a huge thank you to everyone who presented and/or attended the symposium. The diversity of perspectives and fruitful conversations about past, present, and future research on this topic made the day an incredible success, and we look forward to continuing these conversations in the future.

Learn more about REL Northeast & Islands events.

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