- What materials did the Project Mastery sites develop and implement during the pilot period, and to what extent did their efforts align with the defining features of competency-based education?
- What were the key tensions or challenges that emerged in the implementation of competency-based approaches?
- Among students exposed to the Project Mastery pilot programs, how did their self-reported learning experiences vary within and across programs?
- To what extent did students' exposure to competency-based education models predict their academic performance in mathematics, reading, attendance, or promotion to the next grade?
In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation created the Project Mastery grant program to support competency-based education initiatives in large school systems that serve a high proportion of disadvantaged youth. Competency-based education meets students where they are academically, provides students with opportunities for choice, and awards credit for evidence of learning, not for the time students spend studying a subject. The Foundation asked RAND to evaluate these efforts in terms of implementation, students' experiences, and student performance. This report presents final results from that evaluation, offering an overview of competency-based education and the Project Mastery grant projects and describing the implementation of competency-based educational features under each project. The report concludes with six lessons for policy, partnerships, and practice.
Not All Competency-Based Programs Look Alike
- Each Project Mastery grantee emphasized different aspects of competency-based education. Some placed greater emphasis on student choice and project-based learning, while others focused on flexible pacing and evaluation for proficiency.
Tensions Exist in Implementing the Approach
- Sites faced challenges in determining how to provide credit for out-of-school activities, including afterschool activities and travel-based learning experiences.
- Sites experienced tension in holding all students to a common definition of proficiency and evaluating students strictly based on performance, not effort.
- Sites faced challenges in providing enough computer hardware so that students could use new competency-based curricula or in identifying funds that would permit expansion of new curricula beyond the pilot initiatives.
- Sites reported that students with weak academic backgrounds may require extra support under competency-based models.
Student Experiences Were More Similar Than Expected
- Because the programmatic details of the Project Mastery sites were varied, one striking finding was the similarity of students' self-reported experiences across sites.
- The highest student reports of engagement, flexible pacing, and choice came from a site in which respondents were focused on yearlong, self-directed projects that applied academic content to real-world contexts.
Student Performance Varied Across Sites
- Effects of competency-based models on student learning appeared most positive in programs that put primary emphasis on student choice with project-based learning.
- However, the research design did not permit causal inference, and these findings could be at least partially due to students' or teachers' selection into the programs.
Lessons for Policy
- Competency-based education programs should be assessed on a variety of near-term and longer-term outcomes.
- In a competency-based system, flexibly timed accountability tests may provide better measures of progress than fixed, annual tests.
Lessons for Partnerships
- In collaborating with technology developers, schools should negotiate favorable terms and anticipate technical challenges.
- Collaboration between sites and funders should consider local infrastructure and capacity.
Lessons for Practice
- Increased student autonomy calls for engagement through skillful teaching.
- Competency-based education systems must be vigilant about equity.
Table of Contents
Evaluation Settings and Methodological Approach
Intervention Development and Implementation
Tensions in the Implementation of Competency-Based Models
Students' Experiences in the Project Mastery Pilot Classes
Student Outcomes in the Project Mastery Sites
The research described in this report was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and was produced within RAND Education, a division of the RAND Corporation.
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