Nine Ways States Can Create Competency-Based Education Systems

Published on March 03, 2016

Posted November 4, 2015 by Dale Frost

Most schools and education systems are designed around seat time, or providing students with a minimum number of instructional hours. Seat time is the foundation of most education policies, from funding to credits to graduation requirements. Unfortunately, seat time does not assure that students will develop the requisite knowledge and skills for success in college and careers. Thus, we need to redesign the foundations of our education system to be learner-centered and competency-based, so that students graduate prepared.

Our public education system needs to enable competency-based learning through an alignment of both policy and practice. Moving from a time-based system to a learner-centered system requires systemic transformation.

To date, forty-two states have some type of policy in place to provide flexibility for competency education models. However, seat time waivers and limited flexibility provisions are not enough for schools to implement next-generation systems that support personalized learning and competency education. Policymakers should evaluate their state laws, rules, and regulations to uncover limiting time-based policies. They should also provide flexibility to support high-quality new learning models through innovation zones and pilots.

Rather than simply applying for annual waivers of existing seat-time rules, schools need to define credits as competencies and have the flexibility to manage programs for blended learning, with personalized learning and anytime, everywhere mobility. By redefining credits as competencies rather than time-based units—and asking students to demonstrate mastery of the competencies—states will see students progress based on authentic proficiency and have the support to fill in gaps in their learning. Holding all students to high levels of rigor on academic standards is key. Finally, proficiency-based diplomas provide an important policy lever. They facilitate meaningful recognition of demonstrated knowledge, skills, dispositions, and abilities.

Following are nine policy recommendations that states can adopt to support the shift towards competency education:

  • Allow flexibility for schools to base student progression on demonstrated mastery of competencies, rather than on seat time.
  • Establish “innovation zones” to catalyze the development of new learning models; provide the flexibility to waive certain regulations and requirements to schools and systems that are ready to implement competency education.
  • Fund pilot programs for schools and districts to implement high-quality, personalized, blended, and competency-based learning systems.
  • Redefine Carnegie Units or credits as competencies aligned to state academic standards.
  • Create a proficiency-based diploma.
  • Establish a state task force on competency education that includes practitioners knowledgeable about competency education. The task force’s purpose would be to identify barriers to and opportunities for policy improvements and to align the full continuum of pre-K, K–12, higher education and workforce systems to competency-based learning.
  • Rethink the state accountability system to motivate real-time improvement of student learning, not just to annually label schools.
  • Examine strategies to align state data systems around systems-level supports for teaching and learning.
  • Redesign state systems of assessments to align with competency-based learning:
    • Measure individual student growth along personalized learning progressions.
    • Use multiple measures of learning, including performance-based assessments.
    • Include summative assessment data as a validator for student-centered accountability.
    • Allow students to take through-course and end-of-course assessments when ready.

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