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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'Mastery learning' means lots of testing, and choices about what's essential

U.S. students should get a high school diploma when they meet state standards in core subjects, writes Checker Finn. It doesn't matter how many classes they sat through or how many credits awarded. If they can show competency -- probably by taking tests -- they get the diploma.

In a mastery-based system, students would move through school at their own pace, moving to the next level when they show they're ready, he proposes. Compulsory attendance laws would be abolished. Some students would need more time to earn a diploma. Others would need less.

"Disrupting" high school by shifting from credits to competency could create a better, stronger experience for students, writes Fordham's Michael Petrilli. But it will be very hard to get there from here.

How would students show competency? By passing tests -- a lot more high-stakes tests. Many people don't like tests. They don't like the results.

Policymakers would have to decide where to set the bar for a diploma. How much mastery is enough? If the bar is set at the "college-ready" level, writes Petrilli, that will mean "denying a diploma to millions of young people." That's not doable. "If it should be set lower, how low is too low?"

Should career-tech students be able to skip some college-prep courses to make time for work-based learning? Which ones?

Should high schools drop requirements so students can pursue their interests?

Should students have to show mastery of "social and emotional" skills?

Finally, asks Petrilli, "how do we deal with the enormous variation in student readiness upon arrival in high school?" Schools are likely to stratify even further "along line of achievement, race, and/or class."

The reason that state standards, textbooks, and student schedules are stuffed to the brim is that every identity group pushes hard for their stories and histories to be represented, and every interest group pushes to use America’s curriculum to address their societal concerns. Moving to a competency-based approach won’t change that. Everyone will just fight over what’s on the competency-based assessments and/or which assessments students must pass in order to graduate.

Like Petrilli, I think the only solution is different levels of diploma for those who want to succeed in college, succeed in career training or do the minimum to get out of high school.

He envisions a commission that would set essential graduation requirements and avoid creating an unworkable wish list (“wouldn’t it be wonderful if every student was able to do these 1,001 things...”)

The Carnegie Foundation and the XQ Institute are working on "building a new educational architecture that shifts the sector to a truly competency-based system and away from time-bound conceptions of what knowledge is and how it is acquired," write Russlynn Ali and Timothy F.C. Knowles on The 74.

Is it doable?

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