Exploring the Impact of Personalized Learning on Student Outcomes

By Geoff Zimmerman
January 3, 2020


We believe in the power of personalized, competency-based learning because we want each and every student to learn and be challenged as individuals. We believe it is the path toward equitable outcomes for ALL students. We intuitively understand that having clear learning targets, meaningful and flexible assessments, personalized student supports, and student ownership of their own learning are good things for learning. More than belief though, it is important to build the research and evidence base to demonstrate that these approaches work.  

When KnowledgeWorks sponsored RAND Education and Labor to conduct analyses of student outcomes in the RSU2 school district in Maine, we sought to understand the school district’s impact on a wide variety of student outcomes, including academic achievement, hope and well-being, attendance, graduation and postsecondary success.  

What we’ve learned is that answering the question of impact is more complex than ever. The ability to examine impact on all of these outcomes varied due to limitations in the available data. And when each community is unique, when metrics for student success via new approaches are tied to traditional learning environments, and when transparency and communication with all stakeholders is a process, the answers are more nuanced and complex than “Yes, this works.” 

RAND looked at a variety of available data, but the most robust dataset was from the Northwest Evaluation Association’s MAP assessment. RAND conducted analyses with MAP scores to show how RSU2 students performed relative to their matched counterparts from fall-to-spring of each academic year from 2008-09 through 2017-18. The data in this report reflects some clear challenges that RSU2 needs to focus on as well as bright spots, and there are some important lessons for districts and states that are taking on this challenging work: 

  • Schools and districts must prioritize developing a culture of collecting and utilizing data to understand what works for students and to improve classroom practices
  • A strong culture of data should include academic and test data as well as data that illustrates student progress in building the social-emotional skills and dispositions necessary for success in an uncertain future
  • Access to this data is important to understanding a key value proposition of personalized, competency-based learning: that this approach helps build student mastery, as well as student agency and ownership of learning 

RSU2 remains a beacon for others in its vision and leadership on personalized competency-based learning. Even today, amidst turbulence in Maine regarding a recent repeal of their standards-based diploma, RSU2 remains committed to the vision. In the face of these challenges, the new district leadership is holding forums to listen and learn about what the community perceives as strengths and opportunities for its schools and its learners. It’s with this commitment to cultivating the shared vision that we know RSU2 will continue to be a school district that we can learn from and one that continues to cultivate hope in all learners. 

Download the report, Personalized, Competency-Based Learning: Analysis and Reflections on Student Outcome Data in RSU2. 

This blog is part of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative Equity Series by JFF and KnowledgeWorks and created with support from its funders. Learn more about this work. 

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