Competency-Based Education: State Policy Options for COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery

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Written by: Ben Erwin
June 18, 2020

States are charting their path forward to reopen schools, but learning loss projections and the potential for additional school closures in the fall loom as major obstacles for supporting student growth and achievement. Education policy leaders have focused on building the capacity of schools and districts to provide remote instruction and student supports, but moving from triage to recovery represents the next step.

In response to these challenges, schools may implement new models of learning and assessment, including competency-based education, which could help to remove seat time as a measure of student learning and allow for increased flexibility to meet students where they are. A wide array of approaches to remote learning and concerns over student access to technology and quality instruction have resulted in widening opportunity gaps that exacerbate gaps in achievement. On the surface, competency-based education may be enticing because of its student-centric approach, but how can the concept be implemented through policy?

Competency-based education moves away from traditional measures of student growth and achievement, emphasizes the mastery of standards as a prerequisite for progression and boasts a personalized learning experience that allows for targeted support and differentiated pacing.  Competency-based education falls under the umbrella of student-centered learning. The Aurora Institute identifies key tenets of a competency-based education system, and the American Enterprise Institute outlines some of the benefits.

Several states have already begun the transition to competency-based education, while others have implemented policies that enable competency-based education at the district level. The Aurora Institute identified a few ways states can begin to experiment with competency-based education components, including credit flexibility and the development of multiple pathways to graduation.

Learning loss caused by school closures will likely result in an even wider distribution of student academic achievement. This will require even greater differentiation in instruction for teachers to ensure that students are both catching up and meeting grade-level expectations. Seat-time and credit flexibility allow students to demonstrate mastery on an expedited timeline and with a more individualized approach. Michigan implemented a variety of credit flexibility options, including waivers from traditional instructional time requirements. Under its policy, schools and districts may receive waivers for online learning, project-based learning, work-based learning, and career and technical education options.

In a similar vein, Vermont established proficiency-based graduation requirements and carved out flexible pathways to graduation through Act 77 of 2013. Students can satisfy these requirements through work-based learning opportunities, virtual and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college programs. The state also requires the development and annual review of a personalized learning plan aligned with a graduation pathway for each student in grades 7-12. This personalized learning infrastructure allows Vermont to assess student achievement and build upon each individual plan to facilitate more intentional education recovery efforts.

In an oft-cited national example, New Hampshire developed minimum standards for public school approval that are rooted in competency-based education and its state model competencies. New Hampshire expanded its competency-based system through the development of the Performance Assessment of Competency Education. PACE uses locally developed and administered assessments that are aligned with the identified competencies and the judgement of teachers to evaluate student proficiency. The alignment of student competencies with the statewide assessment and accountability system may foster an environment that enables consistency across diagnostic, formative and eventually summative assessments. This could help to generate clear goals for each student and inform more targeted instruction and supports.

In a proposal that has been hailed as “bold” and potentially transformational, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio is considering a plan to shift to competency-based learning in the fall to address a wide array of student needs. The school district would expand its competency-based program and group students in multi-age “grade bands” to help students catch up outside of grade-level constraints and relearn and reinforce foundational skills that enable further learning. Cleveland is not the first district to use a competency-based approach, but as states continue to refine their reopening plans, creating a policy environment that offers the flexibility needed for competency-based education may help schools overcome the immense challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting closures.

For additional information on state policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, consult Education Commission of the States’ COVID-19 Update.

Author profile

Ben Erwin

Ben Erwin

Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

As a policy analyst, Ben works on tracking legislation, answering information requests and contributing to other Policy Team projects. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, he taught high school social studies in Kentucky and worked in education policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. He earned a master's degree in education policy from the University of Colorado Boulder and a bachelor's degree in history and education from Transylvania University.

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