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The Carnegie Unit May Yield to Better Course-Credit Measure

The Carnegie Unit, the time-based standard used to judge student learning, may be replaced.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the very group that conceived the unit, has been awarded research funding to explore ways—instead of time—to measure competency.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced it is giving $460,000 to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, Calif., to support research on the role of the Carnegie Unit in American education.

Developed in 1906, the unit is a gauge of the amount of time a student has studied a subject. For example, a total of 120 hours in one subject, meeting four or five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes, for 36 to 40 weeks each year earns the student one "unit" of high school credit.

This approach has become the dominant way of tracking student progress in secondary and postsecondary education, but not without its critics. Some say the use of time is an arbitrary basis for measuring educational attainment. With advances in technology and the potential for personalized learning, there is a push to revise the unit to be based on competency rather than time.

Researchers Thomas Toch and Elena Silva from Carnegie, an independent research and policy organization, will use the grant to reach out to the education community to get input on the future of the Carnegie Unit.

Silva, a senior associate for research and policy, says the foundation is in a good position to ask these questions since it developed the Carnegie Unit, which never intended it to be used as it is now. "Initially, it was part of an effort to push for higher and better standards," she says. "It is not a good universal measure for student progress. ... We are curious to know how it might be changed and more aligned with better, richer tools for measurement."

The credit hour is an efficient and simple way to move students through education—and it provides the framework for K-12 and higher education. Any change would require a huge shift in schools, says Silva. There are also concerns about moving younger students who are academically ready into classes with older children. It could be that a competency-based approach would work in some places, but not others, she added.

"[The Carnegie Unit} was not intended to measure learning, so it shouldn't be a surprise that it hasn't," says Silva. "It's a good time right now to revisit. We have new technology, new ways of assessing learning ... to consider a new criteria not based on time might improve teaching and learning."

The researchers will likely begin their work by convening experts in Washington and Stanford, Calif., to gather suggestions.

A report on the findings is expected in early 2014.

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