Competency-Based Learning Gaining Ground Nationwide

Published July 18, 2017

Windsor Locks Public Schools began by giving competency-based grades in kindergarten through fifth grade. “When this class hit sixth grade, it continued,” said Windsor Locks Principal Steve Swensen.

The school’s current ninth grade class will be the first to complete an entire K-12 education based on competency and mastery of subjects instead of A’s and B’s.

“The class of 2020 is the first class that will go through our whole system, and every subsequent grade will be graded that way,” Swensen said.

National Trend, Homegrown Initiative

The U.S. Department of Education website states competency-based education transitions schools “away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, [allowing] students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.

“Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities,” the website states. “These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others.”

‘Significantly Increased Interest’

Schools across the country are implementing competency-based pilot programs, says Karla Phillips, policy director for competency-based education at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which released “Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape” in spring 2017.

“We’ve seen significantly increased interest in competency-based and personalized learning as a whole,” Phillips said. “We see this as the next logical step for college and career readiness. We see state test scores that are low proficiency and don’t align with increased graduation rates. The pilot programs give the state the opportunity to ask these questions in their own state and develop their own solutions.”

Revamped Grading System

Windsor Locks removed homework, behavior, and participation from students’ grades years ago, Swensen says.

“Under a traditional system, [grades include] a percentage of tests, quizzes, a homework component, participation, and classwork,” Swensen said. “Homework and participation are opportunities for students to make mistakes or communicate misunderstandings. Content knowledge on assessments should be truly reflective of knowledge. Taking those things out of the grades, we realized that a standards-based grading system made more sense in that type of a classroom environment.”

‘Local Communities Decide’

Phillips says the way schools incorporate competency-based learning varies.

“It’s more about flexible pacing than at their own pace,” Phillips said. “Local communities decide what it looks like and how to fit the needs of their community and to make sure students have mastered subjects. Every school is approaching it differently.”

Cari Strand, curriculum leader at New Haven, Connecticut’s High School in the Community Academy for Law and Social Justice, which uses competency-based learning, says schools should learn from one another.

“Other states have made this change, so my hope would be that we’d make this move while in communication with them and could learn from their successes and challenges,” Strand said.

Colleges Accommodating

Swensen says parents need not worry about how colleges and universities view students from competency-based schools.

“[Colleges] get transcripts from all over the country and world, and they have to look at the transcript and school and make sense of many learning environments,” Swensen said. “As long as the school profile describes that school’s grading system, they’re not going to be viewed differently.”

‘It’s Very Local’

Changing grading is not all there is to competency-based learning, Phillips says.

“I think it’s a long-term initiative,” Phillips said. “One of the things that makes it long-term and palatable for politicians is it’s very local. It really allows for preservation of local control. There’s no requirements. All the state is saying is, ‘Let’s make sure students are really masters in the field and ready to move on.’ That’s also why implementation will take a while and look different school-to-school and district-to-district. Communities can really decide.

“As a country, we understand that students learn differently,” Phillips said. “Not only the style, but by pace. Students and families want more options and to tailor things more for their children.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.


“Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape; A Survey of Current State Law and Policy on Competency-Based Education in K-12 Systems,” ExcelinEd, Spring 2017: