Personalized learning presents a vital opportunity to provide rigorous, high-quality instruction while addressing students’ diverse educational experiences and pursuing their unique strengths, interests, and needs. Coupled with flexibility in pace and delivery, personalized learning is grounded in the idea of students progressing when they demonstrate mastery of skills and knowledge, regardless of the time, place, or pace at which such mastery occurs. For some students, it means removing artificial barriers to their engagement with more advanced work. For many others, it means providing tailored support as well as the time and opportunity to close learning gaps rather than leaving them behind year after year.
As interest in personalized learning has grown, so have efforts to take this new educational model to scale. Consider the recent spate of personalized learning initiatives launched in states like Florida, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, and Illinois (to name just a few). ExcelinEd has been excited and proud to be a partner with and supporter of many of these efforts. We see many examples around the country of schools implementing personalized learning—illustrations of the promise that this model holds to improve students’ lives and put each of them on a pathway to college and career readiness.
It’s no slam dunk, however. With the promise of personalized learning come significant challenges—most notably regarding accountability. We have been at the forefront of standards-based reform for more than a decade, advocating for robust accountability systems and partnering with states to develop them. Recently, we have earnestly pushed for innovation and advocated for pilot programs that incentivize personalized learning and the need for accompanying accountability systems.
Over the coming years, our traditional, state-level standardized assessment and accountability systems may need to be redesigned to accommodate situations where age-defined grade-levels take a back seat to students’ individualized progressions, probably by using adaptive assessments that gauge mastery of specific knowledge, content, and their application. Looking farther ahead, as student-centered systems emerge, new visions for what we want students to know and do will evolve, and assessment and accountability will eventually need to reflect these new visions. In the meantime, states find themselves in the difficult position of ensuring that they meet statutory requirements while trying to support schools’ transition to personalized learning.
The main lesson we have learned from the states and schools that are beginning this transition is that the journey will be incremental and will take time. This reinforces our belief that states should use innovation and pilot programs that take advantage of existing flexibility while they transition to implementing the broader systemic changes necessary for sustainable at-scale growth of personalized learning. Our recent report on personalized learning suggests steps that states can take to provide this flexibility under current laws and within familiar practices. For instance, they can allow for flexible administration of state assessments so students may demonstrate mastery when they are ready. In addition, states should hold schools accountable for student learning outcomes by better balancing proficiency and criterion-based growth. State accountability systems can also set clear expectations for four-year graduation rates while also recognizing schools that improve extended-year graduation rates for those students needing more time to demonstrate mastery of college and career readiness.
Those, however, are just the first steps. Moving to full transformation into a world of personalized learning will take time, substantial resources, and further innovations in assessments and accountability systems. ExcelinEd wants to engage both advocates of personalized learning and the broader education-reform community to discuss the long-term vision for assessment and accountability, as well as to provide states with principled and practical guidance.
This work will not be easy—and we cannot accomplish it alone. Over the months to come, we hope you will join us in doing exactly what we as policy advocates regularly ask of educators: to step out of our comfort zone, ask tough questions, and be open to possible answers.
Patricia Levesque is chief executive officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.