Stagnant academic achievement in the U.S. is well-documented, and the learning loss from COVID-19 is expected to increase the differences in academic achievement between middle-class and low-income students. The question today is not whether innovation in education is needed but how best to achieve it.

NSBA recently announced its Public School Transformation Now! campaign, which is working toward meaningful improvement and changes in learning in public schools. The campaign is focused on the future of learning, including exploring instructional models that can better prepare students with 21st century skills, creating an improved path for their future success. Personalized learning is one of the instructional models more schools should be considering.

To achieve a shift to personalized learning, states can consider reforming traditional seat time requirements and developing a competency-based education (CBE). The traditional system, which awards academic credit based on a minimum amount of instructional time in a subject area, emphasizes time rather than mastery, which stands in fundamental opposition to personalized learning at its core.

On the other hand, CBE is “a structure that…allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

How does CBE work?

Competency-based education is a learning system based on students’ individual needs. According to the Aurora Institute, assessments in CBE are “meaningful, positive, and empowering.” How is this achieved?

Assessments serve as ongoing indicators of learning (formative assessments), and students are only formally assessed once formative practice indicates a student is ready. While traditional multiple-choice tests are an option for formal assessment, the flexibility exists in a competency system to administer performance-based tasks, simulations, and other nontraditional methods of assessment. A core element of CBE is students learning in different pathways at varied pacing.

Education embedded in different pathways at varied pacing creates the flexibility for students to learn in ways that work for them. For example, students who seek an alternative to in-person schooling have the option to engage through online learning, through programs such as Florida’s Virtual School, which served over 240,000 K-12 students in 2019-20. Other personalized learning/competency-based strategies like blended learning and project-based learning utilize technology and student collaboration to create a classroom environment that is student-centered, engaging, and conducive to learning.

CBE in action

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) collected data about state policies that support schools and districts to flexibly award credit that is based on demonstrated competency rather than on seat time. NCSL found that an increasing number of states are starting with small-scale pilot programs and offering grants to schools and districts that are implementing competency-based models.

  • New Hampshire became the first state to abolish seat time requirements in favor of a competency-based system in 2005. Student engagement has improved over the years, demonstrated by the state’s dropout rate declining by more than half, from 2.5 percent in 2007-08 to 1.02 percent in 2018-19.
  • Vermont and Maine have changed their graduation requirements to reflect student proficiency in core subjects.
  • Ohio requires school districts to allow students to earn high school credit based on demonstrated competency in a subject area rather than completed hours of classroom instruction.

In fact, 29 states have allowed districts to use a measure other than seat time to award credit, as of 2013, according to Bellwether Education. While this gives districts flexibility, state-level policy change can help districts receive consistent support from the state in terms of professional development, curricular and grading changes, messaging to families, etc. Idaho provides a good example of systematic implementation of CBE at the state level. It began the process in 2015, first “conducting a statewide awareness campaign to promote interest and understanding of the system for all relevant stakeholders,” before piloting the program in 20 districts, according to the Aurora Institute.

Answering the following questions can help identify roadblocks and possible solutions for implementing CBE:

  1. As with any large change, buy-in and understanding for relevant stakeholders is a key component. Have teachers expressed interest in incorporating CBE strategies in the classroom?
  2. How will you support teachers with this shift through professional development? Consider partnerships with organizations dedicated to working with states/districts on planning and implementing innovative strategies.
  3. Has your district created a student profile for the skills a successful high school graduate possesses? If not, who are the relevant stakeholders to collaborate with?
  4. What are the technology needs in your district? Have you considered a bring-your-own device policy?
  5. Have other districts in the state implemented competency-based education? What were their successes/areas of improvement when it came to implementation?

Rishabh Chatterjee ( is a LEE Policy Fellow in NSBA’s federal advocacy department.

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