Reforming K-12 education for the better

mahhhEducation seems to be a constant topic of reform, but rarely do actual reforms blossom into substantial improvements to the system. The current state of education is disquieting, to say the least. Student debt is becoming more and more of a problem, and economic disparity continues to play a prominent role in determining the quality of one’s education. However, in this world of trite propositions and unmet promises, there is one type of education reform that offers promise — competency-based learning.

Competency-based learning starts at the K-12 level, but its benefits extend into the collegiate level and above. The term itself refers to a new type of education system currently being test-run in Lindsay, Calif., that prioritizes mastery of material over the more archaic method of evaluation that has been used so far: age.

In a competency-based system, students can find themselves in classes with peers three years their senior and vice versa. Age no longer plays a part in determining one’s class level. In its stead, the system emphasizes standardized test scores, which are used to determine students’ level of mastery of the material. Based on their test results, students could possibly leap up a grade or two but could also just as easily be withheld from advancing to the next grade.



I know what you are thinking: MORE standardized tests? Trust me, I enjoy standardized tests no more than you, but hear me out.

I admit that standardized tests are in no way a true measure of one’s mastery of the subject material, but until we can download information straight to our brains (which might not be that far off), tests are the best means to evaluate individual students and to have them learn the material.

Plus, test results are a much better means to award class level than age. Is someone at age 17 truly more deserving of a higher class level than someone at age 14 simply because he or she had three more birthdays to celebrate than the other?

True, it can be daunting for a younger student to enter a class surrounded by older students, but with this system in place, there are sure to be many other younger students mixed in with older students. This scenario is entirely different than a student who skips a grade or two. That 14-year-old in a class of 17-year-olds would not be an exception but a rule.

The competency-based system currently being test-run within the school district of Lindsay is in part due to $10 million the district received from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top fund dedicated to help improve K-12 education.

So far, the benefits of competency learning seen in Lindsay schools have been astounding: Pass rates on state exams have increased while suspension rates and the number of students claiming gang membership have both decreased.

In this system, students no longer have the luxury of knowing that they will be able to advance to the next grade simply because they will be a year older. The competency system ensures that students must always be prepared material-wise if they hope to advance with their classmates.

Students who see no point in learning the material should be prepared to repeat a grade level until they do, which brings us to another indirect benefit of the competency system: unmotivated students will be directly weeded out from their peers based on their test results.

Students who fail exams will either be forced to try harder or face the same fate a year later. It may be a harsh sentence, but students who cannot manage to pass an exam in grade school should not be expected to succeed in high school and beyond. Better to help these students learn their deficiencies from the outset, rather than abandon them to a crueler reality later on.

All in all, the competency-based learning system is in no means a perfect solution. But in a world where reform is the norm, an improvement to the system is always refreshing, and that is just what the competency system is — an improvement.

Reach the columnist at or follow him on Twitter @jonathanmah

Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.