Anyone who has spent time in a high school classroom will know that not everyone learns at the same speed. Some kids are bored by the material of their grade level, while others struggle to keep up. Yet despite these obvious discrepancies, most schools insist that all students of the same grade level learn exactly the same things at exactly the same time. Only in relatively rare circumstances are children allowed to skip or repeat grades.Slowly but surely, some schools are looking to change this. The WSJ explores the rise of “competency-based learning,” which organizes students based on skill rather than age. Students advance to new material when they have demonstrated mastery of their current work, and when they’re allowed to learn at their own pace, test scores go up. The WSJ profiles one school district, in Lindsay, California, that has reaped the benefits of the new approach:
The district has seen its pass rates on state exams rise since competency-based teaching began in 2009. In reading, 34% of students passed the exams last year, up from 25% in 2009. Pass rates for math rose to 32% from 28%, while those for science jumped to 41% from 27%.The district still scores below California averages on all the exams, but is improving faster than the statewide average on most of them. Lindsay’s score in the state Academic Performance Index, based on tests, jumped to 691 last year from 644 in 2009. The 47-point gain compares with an average 35-point rise statewide.
Many critics, however, worry that competency-based learning could be used as a pretext to lower standards for students who are less gifted or who receive less support at home. Others note that the burden of teaching various lesson plans for students at different points in the curriculum could make life difficult for teachers. These are real concerns, and supporters need to make sure that standards are in place so that hard-to-teach students don’t lag behind. But overall, we like the experimention with any approach that rewards students for what they’ve learned rather than the amount of time they’ve served in the classroom. There’s nothing natural or eternal about “grades,” and moving students in lockstep based on age is a waste of time and talent.