Competency-Based Learning for Athletes in Utah

As a current high school student, grades have often weighed on me, and I have felt like strict grading has restricted my ability to explore aspects of education. I moved across the country to a school that gives me access to an education as well as flexibility to be able to ski race. And as a ski racer in Utah, missing school to train or race has intensified the stress of grades as I have less time than most to advance at the same pace as the rest of my class. I know what it is like to have athletics and education clash. I have found a way to balance both in my life due to my extremely supportive school but many public schools do not offer this support. We are called student-athletes but are often not treated as students first and sometimes get held back or restricted in our education.

Utah is developing a new model for public school curriculums and it will be implemented in the 2018-2019 school year. This program highlights individualized learning and allows students to advance in a subject by passing a state-approved Demonstrated Competency Assessment for original credit in a class. Although this program is extremely beneficial for students to learn more fluidly and advance at their own pace, athletes are very restricted. Credit earned by taking a Demonstrated Competency Assessment is not accepted to meet National Collegiate Athletic Association eligibility. For athletes, this inability to receive credit is very damaging to their educational growth as it limits individuals to choose their own pace and depth into the subject matter.

School curriculums have been created regarding the same model for a hundred years all based on the research of psychologist Edward Thorndike. This model highlighted evaluating students very strictly with a rubric and assigning letter grades. According to the model, students were to be graded in difficulty, which would define a series of points on a scale of ability in each subject. Through observing relative merit, an ideal scale with precise amounts was created with scale-points or values that are rigorously and perfectly defined. Scale-points? Perfectly defined? Does that sound like a system of teaching that allows a student to grow, explore, and prosper?

Many other states have implemented this program differently in their schools but have seen obvious success. Demonstrated Competency Assessments are just one aspect that will help students move at their own pace without fear of a bad grade. The stress of perfect grades and the uniform way in which students have been classified based on a set scale of skills has lead to education becoming irrelevant to real-world situations. The competency assessments would allow athletes to move forward in a subject accordingly and not be held back due to their commitment to sport.

The current system sets a pace for the class to touch on specific topics and reach a final exam at a certain time and students receive a letter grade at the end. This strict timeline doesn’t work for student-athletes. When an athlete is out of the classroom not only do they miss learning a topic directly from the teacher, they miss discussions and diverse points of views from classmates and the ability to ask questions. Athletes are still expected to keep moving as the class does to somehow eventually reach the same final goal as normal students. Athletes are forced to sacrifice either their sport or their education in order to succeed, but implementing Demonstrated Competency Assessments in Utah public education would give student-athletes support in both school and sport. But by denying credit, these competency exams currently do not benefit athletes whatsoever.

NCAA may claim that education comes first for athletes and that athletes are expected to succeed in school as well as athletics, but if you go to the NCAA homepage you will see only articles about athletics but will not find a single article about the academic achievements of the athletes. Currently, many athletes struggle to receive a well-rounded education and struggle to receive job opportunities after their athletic career and much of this struggle is due to the lack of support from NCAA. Successful careers after professional sport demand marketable skills and competencies, as well as formal education. Further limiting educational opportunities for athletes will be detrimental to their careers after sport.

This program, if made accessible to athletes, could allow athletes to travel and practice more and succeed in their sport as well as improve the options that athletes have for jobs after sports careers.

Elena Zipp was a Summer 2018 Better Utah intern and is a high school student in Utah. 


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