Competency-based education is increasingly being implemented at schools across the country. However, different understandings of what it is and a variation in state policies and state support means its implementation will look different. 

In competency-based education, students’ progress, for example, is not measured by the Carnegie Unit’s standards of seat time and promotion through the grade level. Instead, competency-based education focuses on mastering content at students’ own pace with personalized learning opportunities shaped by their needs. 

CompetencyWorks, a collaborative initiative dedicated to advancing competency-based education in K-12 education from the Aurora Institute, published its updated definition of competency-based education in 2019, detailing what successful competency-based education looks like. They define it as such: 

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable. 

The Aurora Institute’s policy map showcases the implementation of competency-based education nationwide with over 200 blogs from site visits and interviews. The map also categorizes the depth of each state’s policies on competency-based education; this includes: 

  1. Advanced States are “those states with comprehensive policy alignment and/or an active state role to build capacity in local school systems for competency education.” (ME, VT, NH, RI, VA, OH, KY, TN, SC, AR, IL, IA, ID, OR, UT, CO, AZ)
  2. Developing States are “states with open state policy flexibility for local school systems to transition to competency education.” (CT, PA, WV, NC, FL, AL, IN, MI, WI, MN, NE, OK, NV, AK, DC)
  3. Emerging States are “states with limited flexibility in state policy – usually requiring authorization from the state – for local school systems to shift to competency education, for exploratory initiatives and task forces and/or with minimal state activity to build local capacity.” (MA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, GA, MS, LA, TX, MO, KS, SD, ND, MT, NM, CA, WA, HI)
  4. No policies, “states with no state-level activity and enabling policies for competency-based education. Significant policy barriers may exist, such as inflexible seat-time restrictions.” (WY)  

Variation in a state’s support for competency-based education significantly impacts its district implementation. A report by the Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Central examines the state policies and programs surrounding competency-based education in the seven REL Central states (CO, KS, MO, NE, ND, SD, and WY) and five advanced competency-based-education states (IA, KY, ME, NH, and OR). The report highlights these variations, including state policies on earning credit, assessments, and graduation requirements. 

For example, state policies on how students can earn credits vary. Policies can include the Carnegie Unit’s time-based, where students need to spend time in a course for a specific amount of time to earn credit; time-based (waiver), with time-based requirements that allow districts to request a waiver; competency-based, where state law requires credits to be earned based on mastery of course content or state standards; and district choice, where districts have the option to award seat-tome or competency-based credits. 

New Hampshire is an advanced competency-based education state due to its comprehensive policy alignment. “New Hampshire’s Minimum Standards for Public School Approval state, ‘Credits shall be based on the demonstration of district and/or graduation competencies, not on time spent achieving these competencies. The credit shall equate to the level of rigor and achievement necessary to master competencies that have been designed to demonstrate the knowledge and skills necessary to progress toward college level and career work’ (NH Code Admin. R. Ed 306.27).”

On the other hand, Wyoming is a time-based state that only allows credits to be earned via seat time in a classroom. In North Dakota, a time-based state that allows districts to request a waiver, the law states that “a school or school district may apply to the superintendent of public instruction for a waiver of any rule governing the accreditation of schools (ND Cent. Code § 15.1–06–08).”

Competency-based education is emerging in more districts across the country. The expansion is driven by increased state policies and programs that support its requirements. As this growth continues, taking stock of how state policies shape and impact competency-based education’s implementation is essential.