How One State Is Expanding and Sustaining Competency-Based Education

By Cora Goldston

September 27, 2019

Workshop participants

This is the third article in a series about the Illinois competency-based education pilot. To learn more about the pilot and the Midwest Comprehensive Center’s support, check out our first and second articles.

States across the nation are turning to competency-based education (CBE) practices as one strategy for supporting diverse learners and creating more equitable opportunities for all students to engage in rich, rigorous, real-world learning experiences. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is facilitating a CBE pilot that allows participating districts and district collaboratives to design, implement, and assess innovative CBE approaches that are responsive to their students’ needs and local context. The pilot began in 2017, and as of fall 2019, 47 districts are participating in the pilot.

The Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC) partnered with ISBE to expand and sustain CBE implementation across the state. MWCC and ISBE employed a three-pronged approach to achieve their ambitious statewide goals:

  1. Providing direct support to pilot sites through an array of trainings, coaching, book studies, and CBE resources from nationally recognized experts
  2. Growing local leaders by offering micro-credentials, facilitating networking and communities of practice, and creating opportunities for emerging leaders to offer peers support and professional learning (Micro-credentials recognize learner mastery of specific competencies based on evidence of applying the competencies to authentic, practical experiences.)
  3. Developing new tools about CBE implementation, statewide metrics, and guidance to align SEA infrastructure with a CBE approach

One of the most exciting sustainability efforts in 2018–19 was the creation of a new CBE micro-credential focused on performance-based assessment (PBA). PBA is a cornerstone of CBE because it allows educators to assess a student’s mastery of knowledge and skills through successfully completing a complex task, which requires the application of their learning—often to real-world problems and contexts. To help teachers and administrators from CBE pilot sites develop and use relevant PBAs, MWCC facilitated a 4-month learning series designed to prepare education professionals to earn a micro-credential in Competency-Based Performance Assessment.

Cassie Meyer, technical assistance consultant with MWCC, explains the requirements for earning the micro-credential: “We engaged Dr. Karin Hess, a national expert on competency-based, performance-based assessment, in developing the micro-credential. To prepare for earning the credential, participants attended two in-person meetings and three webinars. After learning about effective performance-based assessment, participants had to design and develop their own authentic performance task, including a rubric to assess a student’s mastery. Dr. Hess evaluated the quality of the submitted performance tasks, along with three additional expert evaluators, to determine whether participants submitted sufficient evidence to receive the micro-credential. In keeping with a competency-based approach, participants were offered constructive feedback and additional support, when needed, to enable them to successfully earn the credential.”

Feedback from Micro-Credential Participants:

  • “I really appreciated learning about a process to evaluate performance assessments and will use a version of this process in my school.”
  • “We will use these tools as a basis for our district in the creation of performance assessments and rubrics.”
  • “What I liked best about the micro-credential sessions [were] the one-on-one sessions, the Q&A sessions, [and] the in-depth learning that took place by highly qualified staff.”
  • “I appreciated all of the resources [that] Dr. Hess provided. It was nice to be able to take the time to actually go through the materials with her guidance.”

Developing and awarding the micro-credential produced benefits beyond expanding participants’ individual knowledge and skill. Wendy Surr, senior researcher with MWCC, describes how the micro-credential also opened doors at the state level: “This is paving the way for ISBE to offer official designations on teacher licenses—and graduate credit at Illinois universities. The ISBE CBE pilot team connected with the Educator Effectiveness department to enable CBE pilot site staff to be recognized for their newly gained skills in CBE that could be ‘counted’ in the existing professional learning system. ISBE staff also partnered with Northern Illinois University to enable participants to earn graduate credit for successfully completing the micro-credential. While the micro-credential started as part of a pilot project, it has evolved into broadened interest in micro-credentials and optimism that the state will be able to recognize CBE expertise within official educator licensure systems in the future.”

Another exciting support provided to schools this past year through ISBE’s partnership with MWCC was the continuation of book studies focused on Rose Colby’s Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K–12 Schooling. MWCC hosted the initial book study in spring 2018 for the first cohort of CBE pilot districts and then hosted another in fall 2018 for the second pilot cohort. A third book study for the third pilot cohort concluded in summer 2019. During the book study, author and CBE expert Rose Colby hosted five hour-long webinar sessions to talk about key CBE principles and facilitate related discussion and Q&A sessions.

In addition to providing direct support to CBE pilot districts, MWCC is working with ISBE to build state capacity and inform statewide CBE implementation. Examples of some of the MWCC supports at the state level include the following:

  • Co-creating an Annual Implementation and Progress Reporting Tool to support CBE pilot programs in incorporating effective design principles. MWCC worked with ISBE and external experts to establish timelines and criteria that determine proper implementation for each design principle.
  • Facilitating a working group of CBE pilot districts to develop statewide guidance on learner competencies.
  • Co-creating a new metric in the statewide Student Information System that will allow CBE pilot districts to tag courses as “CBE.” This new tag will allow pilot districts and ISBE to capture student data related to CBE participation, which may be used to examine potential outcomes of CBE models down the road.
  • Hosting three in-person and seven virtual planning retreats to focus on ISBE’s long-term sustainability plan for CBE implementation. The retreats covered a wide range of topics, including the following:
    • Creating a theory of action and logic model
    • Establishing performance metrics to gauge implementation progress
    • Identifying the activities, target audiences, and intended outcomes for each CBE pilot statewide strategy, and
    • Devising a staffing plan for managing CBE implementation after the current MWCC grant ends.
  • Bringing in consultants for three targeted sessions about strategic alliances, strategic communications, and aligning ISBE internal procedures and policies with the conditions needed for CBE implementation.
  • Supporting ISBE in its application for two microgrants:
    • One to create a community of practice for CBE pilot participants who received the performance-based assessment micro-credential.
    • Another to host a statewide event on PBA open to all CBE pilot learning communities.

Angelique Hamilton, project administrator for curriculum and instruction with ISBE, notes, “MWCC has been instrumental in leading the state towards setting the foundation and building the knowledge and skills at the state level in CBE strategies to not only sustain the CBE pilots, but raising the bar in instructional practices that promote and support equitable practices with a focus on student achievement and empowerment.”

ISBE hosted successful statewide CBE meetings and events, established a new community of practice, and is leading several new working groups related to CBE’s connection to higher education, special education, services for English learner students, eligibility for high school athletics, and more. ISBE has a vision for the state that ensures equity for all students. By building the capacity of sites to support students, growing local leaders who can guide others, and bolstering a CBE-aligned infrastructure, ISBE is well-positioned to expand high-quality CBE opportunities for students in the years ahead.