Competency-Based Education Landscape

The future of CBE will be built on the work innovative schools and organizations are doing today. What are the major features of the curfect landscape? Whose work is leading the way?

Our scan of the CBE landscape revealed five key areas where important changes are happening: model schools and networks, learning tools, students supports, teacher development, and policy. This section describes our major observations in each area.


Model Schools & Networks

With one or two students at each grade level, the one-room schoolhouses that dotted the American landscape a hundred years ago had elements of competency-based learning. The modern and frequently cited example is the Chugach School District, a network of tiny schools serving remote native villages in southern Alaska. Since Chugach developed as an example twenty years ago, hundreds of schools and a handful of small school districts have emerged as additional early examples.

A few examples of schools and districts leading the way in CBE are shown below, and a longer list can be found in the appendix. Neither list is intended to be comprehensive, but more representative.

Measuring Progress

It is important to note that some of these early adopters of CBE recognize they are working to close gaps. Deputy Superintendent Lana Brown of Lindsay acknowledges that state test scores, particularly for minority populations are below where they want them to be. She points out that they are working hard to close these gaps, and at the same time, are committed to “teaching students where they are for the best long-term success” rather than artificially teaching to the test. She points to growth scores in reading, graduation rates, and other metrics that demonstrate forward progress. Regardless, it is imperative that work is done around CBE implementation to better understand and hold up examples of where gaps are being closed quickly.

 Brown, Lana. Interview. May 2018.

MC2 Charter School

An outstanding example of a competency-based, progressive model for learning, MC2 can be described as learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community centered. Their advisors co-learn with students, and assessments are used to better understand learners. The leadership role helps create space and support for learners to solve their own problems. With two campuses in New Hampshire, MC2 has served as a real-world example of a powerful learning environment for more than 10 years.

Lindsay Unified School District

Frequently held up as the best district example of competency-based education, Lindsay Unified in California’s Central Valley has been working toward a vision of student-centered and competency-based learning for more than a decade. District leaders stress the value of stakeholder buy-in to the vision, the centrality of student agency, and a shared culture built around common practices and language. Other leading districts include Westminster and Mesa County in Colorado, RSU2 in Maine, and Sanborn in New Hampshire.

Purdue Polytechnic

In its second year of operation, under the leadership of Principal Shatoya Ward and Head of School Scott Bess, Purdue Polytechnic students learn problem-solving and critical thinking through real-world design challenges. A design-thinking process that includes analysis and reflection is used to emphasize core academic concepts. Instead of following a traditional schedule, teachers and students work together to outline time for individual learning, group instruction, and project-based works. Students become responsible to identify gaps in their own knowledge and receive support where and when they need it.30

30 Source: Bess, Scott. Interview. December 2017.

Deeper Learning Networks

The Hewlett-supported deeper learning networks — including Asia Society, EL Education, High Tech High, New Tech Network, and Big Picture Learning — engage students in PBL, use rubric-based assessments, and require demonstrations of learning. While they reflect many aspects of competency-based education, student progress is largely cohort-based. This is out of tradition and a commitment to maximizing peer learning in diverse schools.

In addition to schools and school networks, there are numerous research, advocacy, and philanthropic organizations making a difference in K-12 CBE. Frontrunners on the thought leadership side include iNACOLGreat Schools PartnershipJobs for the Future  (JFF), EDUCAUSENGLCKnowledgeWorksCASEL, and more (see appendices on CBE advocacy organizationsphilanthropy organizations, and schools, districts, networks, and states).

Impact Opportunities

Model Schools & Networks:

Enhance and scale competency-based networks.

Rather than being an accurate comparison of CBE and traditional schools, the survey indicates the fuzziness of early implementation and a lack of clarity about language and practices on the basics like grading.

Some districts make the distinction between competency-based grading and standards-based grading, suggesting that the former is more about the application of organizing principles and meeting students where they are.

Develop schools that are models for competency-based practice.

A well-designed new school grant program is a low-risk strategy to produce high-quality competency-based school models. But new schools are slow and expensive to develop. Most have resulted in incremental advances in CBE rather than breakthrough frameworks. New micro school strategies could speed development, reduce risk, and increase innovation.

Elevate visibility of exemplar school practices.

Disseminating information about schools effectively taking a CBE approach is critical.

Elevate visibility of exemplar school practices.

Most learning platforms were designed for grade-level age cohorts, not personalized and competency-based learning. Updates to widely used lightweight platforms (like Google Classroom or Edmodo) would help scale next-generation platforms to move the market toward a focus on competency. Such efforts could be complemented by supporting new learning models with well-supported teachers.


Competency Learning Processes & Tools

A plethora of tools related to CBE is available. For the purposes of this report, they have been grouped into the following categories: learning platforms, curriculum resources, and assessment tools (see the appendix for an expanded listing of tools within each category).

Prior to discussing these competency tools, it is important to note that they best achieve learning goals when integrated and that there are numerous related education technology challenges including:


Schools are hungry for toolsets to enable all aspects of CBE. For example, XQ Super School Purdue Polytechnic has stated, “If you can’t help us with that, then we’ve got a big hill to climb.” Because they are designed for grade-level cohort school models, technology tools are a barrier to developing and adopting competency-based learning models.

Weak incentives

Free tools from Google and Microsoft accelerated the shift to digital learning but may have dampened investment in next-generation tools. Until business models change, there will not be the data-tracking system or interoperability that is needed.


Currently, there are many single-purpose systems (LMSs, learning resources, gradebook, SISs, and reporting systems). Going forward, we should get to the point where platforms can do all of the following: individualized playlists, creating and supporting dynamic skill groups, and support of scored performance tasks.

Throughout this section, we will describe supports available for each of the components of the learning process, along with potential impact areas. To be most effective, assessment and learning tasks are integrated, aligned, and responsive. Thus, it is challenging to draw a clear line amongst the tools (many systems simultaneously assess, instruct, and track).

For the purpose of this report, we start with a broad overview of learning management systems (LMSs) systems and how they can organize, assess, and support learning. We then move to curriculum, assessment, and reporting tools.

Impact Opportunities

Update learning platforms for competency-based learning.

Most learning platforms were designed for grade-level age cohorts, not personalized and competency-based learning. Updates to widely used lightweight platforms (like Google Classroom or Edmodo) would help scale next-generation platforms to move the market toward a focus on competency. Such efforts could be complemented by supporting new learning models with well-supported teachers.

Learning Platforms

With inexpensive devices and high-quality, often free content, the shift from predominantly print to predominantly digital learning has accelerated. Most schools use (or soon will use) learning platforms to make and manage learning tasks. All but a few recent learning platforms were not designed for personalized and competency-based learning, but rather for a traditional system with whole group instruction and grade-level cohorts.

Including the corporate and training world, there are hundreds of learning platforms on the market. Free platforms such as Edmodo, Google Classroom, and Microsoft Classroom have become very popular. They are simple and intuitive, but they currently lack the management and monitoring tools needed in a competency-based environment.

As noted by Carmel Martin, Senior Advisor at Emerson Collective, “Student databases are not designed to provide teachers with the information they need to know about where students are with respect to specific competencies in real-time. Teachers often know that their students are below or above the grade-level content but don’t have the information broken down against a set of standards or competencies outside the current grade level. This has been identified by experts in the field as a major obstacle for bringing these programs to scale.”31

One example of a competency design platform is Empower Learning, which has been used by Lindsay Unified School District and a few other leading districts. Epiphany Learning is another platform, used by a few leading districts, that supports personalized and competency-based learning.

Motivis Learning, developed by Southern New Hampshire University, is another example of a platform built for a competency-based environment. It is used by Teton Science Schools, a leader in place-based education (PBE) that is launching a rural micro-school network.

Agilix Buzz is a white-labeled platform (e.g., Pearson GradPoint) used with project-based adaptations by the New Tech Network.

Cortex is a highly configurable personalized learning platform co-constructed with XQ School Brooklyn LAB by nonprofit InnovateEdu.

Summit Learning was engineered by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and is used by Summit Public Schools and hundreds of teacher teams that have applied to use it free of charge. This promising platform seeks to solve the challenge of providing real-time information broken down by standard. See also XQ school Summit Shasta.

There are two adaptive learning platforms that support competency-based career education: RealizeIt (review here) and Fishtree (see review, K-12 case study podcast, and learning platforms blog bundle).

AltSchool is a new personalized elementary platform that has raised more than $140 million but only has a few pilot schools to date.

Canvas is the fastest growing LMS in HigherEd with an equal number of K-12 users. It has some personalized learning features but doesn’t support competency-based learning.

When owned by Pearson, Power School was the leading student information system with a standards-based gradebook. When Vista Equity Partners purchased it in 2015, they began adding features including Haiku, a HigherEd LMS.


31 Source: Martin, Carmel. Interview and personal communication. November 2017.

For the past 125 years, learning at both the secondary and postsecondary levels has been governed by a system of courses and credits, bolstered by standardized tests, that have largely been delivered through whole-group instruction to cohorts of same-age students.

Expert Insight

A Case Study on Pulling It All Together

Washington Leadership Academy (WLA) has used Odell (a CBE curriculum), CommonLit, and Canvas for an LMS, and has still needed to spend time on the more granular creation of processes — taking curriculum and making it work for their particular students and systems.

Administrators at WLA are committed to sharing as much as possible about their learnings so that one day, all kids can have an amazing and robust competency-based system.

Below is a snapshot of the steps WLA has taken to ensure CBE is implemented across their learning process. Worth noting are the many and different technology systems used.

Ideally, standards or competencies would appear in Canvas, but the assignments do not automatically have associated standards because creating them is a manual process for staff.32

32 Source: Barbis, Kalee. Interview and personal communication. December  2017.


Curriculum Resources

Over time, most learning content has been developed for whole group delivery in a traditional age-based model. The emphasis has typically been on covering content rather than eliciting evidence of mastery through quality assessment (assessment is further discussed in a subsequent section of this report).

To meet needs in a competency-based environment, learning content and experiences need to be modified to support competency progressions with embedded assessments and extra supports. In particular:

With the shift to digital, there has been an explosion of free and proprietary instructional material choices. Many districts and teachers are developing their own content. The idea of a school-board adopted curriculum has nearly vanished in the last 10 years, leaving schools and individual teachers to make resource decisions.

As stated earlier, the lack of a coherent curriculum is a significant barrier in a CBE context, particularly with the explosion of available options (which requires ongoing mechanisms to determine quality). Even where necessary products exist, local procurement policies can be a barrier to bringing to scale access to high-quality products.33

Assessment expert Susan Brookhart noted the lack of “ready to go” instruction and assessment resources that reflect a competency-based approach.34 While there is certainly a lack of ready-to-use competency-based materials, there are some examples to look to in the field that can be useful.

The content-specific curriculum is beginning to become available with a competency-based approach. For example, Odell Education has developed English Language Arts curricular units designed to provide “comprehensive instruction on a set of literacy proficiencies essential for college and career readiness.” New Classrooms provides an adaptive math solution that utilizes content from a variety of vendors.

Examples of open-source competency-based curriculum resources include EL Education, English Language Arts (ELA), life science curriculum (only for K-5 and built for the EL network), and Open Up Resources, which offers standards-based open content for ELA and math. Both are designed primarily for whole group instruction.

33 Source: Martin, Carmel. Interview and personal communication. November 2017.

34 Source: Brookhart, Susan. Interview. December 2017.

What is the Actual Work Students Do?

As noted in the barriers section, one of the biggest gaps discovered in our research was the lack of clarity around instructional resources. Achieve leader Mike Cohen noted the often-wide gap between standards states have adopted and the curriculum as implemented in the classroom, often resulting in poorly aligned learner experiences and related supports.

In its work with educator teams across the country, Achieve regularly advises that they answer the following questions:

What is the Quality of the Curriculum?

Elina Alayeva, Executive Director of Springpoint, noted that the biggest gap that concerns her with CBE is the lack of good quality, rigorous, high-school level curriculum. She notes, “To truly take a CBE approach, learning needs to advance at times and slow down at times based on the needs and strengths of individual students. Rigorous, engaging curriculum is needed to enable students to move at their own pace. It’s much harder without a rich variety of scaffolded content for students to engage with.”

Khan Academy, also open-source, remains one of the most widely used resources for personalized (and self-driven) learning for students across grade bands. The platform consists of practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that allows learners to progress at their own pace in and out of the classroom.


New Tech Network teachers share a large library of standards-aligned projects and can author their own complete with standards-based rubrics.


Teachers often also access content-curation sites, such as Gooru, for materials; again, the gap is in the coherence.

Because competency education involves students moving at different rates in different subjects, it is impractical for each teacher to develop instructional materials (i.e., it would require large grade spans of content in every subject). It also requires a consistent approach to assessment and feedback. This suggests that instructional materials should be selected by school teams, districts, or networks of schools.

Impact Opportunities

Design competency-based curriculum that promotes deeper learning and transferability.

Most learning content was developed for whole group delivery. Evolving curricula could be modified to support competency progressions with embedded assessments and extra supports.

Assessment Platforms

After decades of emphasis on high stakes year-end assessments, educators are seeking to balance out the process of assessing learning by including both formative (formal and informal) and summative assessments and increasing the use of authentic assessments, through methods such as project-based learning, to encourage broader aims (i.e., social and emotional learning, growth mindset).

As with all aspects of the learning process, the assessment approach should flow from the goals and learning model. For example, assessment can be internal or external to the learning process (or a combination thereof). It can be primarily formative, or heavy on the summative. Further, who or what process determines mastery; for example, is it an automated process, or teacher observations, or a combination?

Overall growth in reading and math can be assessed with quick pretests and posttests, using adaptive assessments such as the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) or Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready.

At the classroom level, MasteryConnect allows teachers to pick or build assessments. It has a mastery tracker, but it doesn’t incorporate feedback from other sources (e.g., an adaptive quiz or teacher-scored tasks).

To capture a more holistic view of student work, portfolios can include multiple forms of evidence that demonstrate deeper learning skills (including both fundamental skills and fundamental knowledge)37 but require well-calibrated mastery judgments and are difficult to scale. Portfolio platforms include FreshGradeBulbDigication, and Pathbrite.

New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) is an example of a portfolio-based approach that relies heavily on local teacher training. The learning process has been described as authentic; yet there are significant challenges with reliability, validity, and scalability.

MasteryTrack is an example of a new standalone dashboard designed to enable students, teachers, and principals to monitor student learning progress. The specific learning objectives and binary definition of mastery make the approach very clear and easy to implement. CEO Scott Ellis distills (and simplifies) the process by seeking clarity around what he sees as the critical questions that make mastery-based learning possible: “What are the specific, clear, demonstrable learning objectives? What is the mastery threshold for each one? How does the student demonstrate mastery and how does the teacher assess mastery? And how is the data organized and displayed?”38

From a reporting standpoint, a core challenge is that there are currently no adequate mechanisms to combine multiple assessments to guide learning and to make mastery judgments for both in and out-of-school learning. Most school networks build a simplified approach to this problem, agreeing on a handful of measures and methods of combining or weighting these measures. Schools often supplement weak gradebooks with spreadsheets or new mastery-based gradebooks like JumpRope. Too often, valuable out-of-school learning is either not accounted for or not integrated. In addition to the challenge of integrating such data, it will also be important to ensure quality learning in non-traditional contexts.

37 Source: Martin, Carmel. Interview and personal communication., November 2017. 

38 Source: Ellis, Scott.  Interview. December 2017

Expert Insight

Pulling Together Assessment Data at Purdue Polytechnic High School

Head of School Scott Bess noted the challenges of disparate assessment systems. At Purdue Polytechnic, they use the PSAT suite of test results to get a sense of where students are holistically, various online products for math, and teacher-developed lessons for other contextual and project-focused knowledge. A challenge is tying together what has been learned about each student from multiple sources.39

39 Source: Bess, Scott. Interview. December 2017.

Impact Opportunities

Develop unified assessment platforms.

With low interoperability, mastery determinations often rely on one-dimensional external assessments. Portfolios help capture student work but require well-calibrated mastery judgments. Combining multiple assessments into a unified badge platform would allow networks of schools to make common mastery judgments. Adding automated scoring would improve efficiency and calibration.


High school transcripts that summarize courses taken and grades received are typically sent to colleges in paper or PDF format. There is no standard for what is covered in courses or how learning is graded. It is, however, the norm for college application and admissions officers to make judgments based on the sending high school (i.e., a 3.9 GPA from one high school may be valued over the same grades from another school based on the performance of prior students from those schools).

To offer a solution to the problem, a group of independent schools formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) to develop a common framework for communicating skills, knowledge, and habits of mind by presenting evidence. Piloted in 2018, the Mastery Transcript is organized around performance areas (rather than courses), mastery standards, and micro-credits (rather than grades) as defined by the crediting high school. While this work began with independent schools, it is expanding to include a pilot with public schools as well. In order to capture and communicate student accomplishments to colleges and employers, it will require that schools — or groups of schools — will still need to define graduation requirements and forms of evidence that represent competencies.

Learner Profiles

Sophisticated learning environments develop comprehensive learner profiles. With a commitment to privacy and access, these can be powerful tools. With thousands of online students at Kaplan, Bror Saxberg (now at CZI) was able to run dozens of A/B tests simultaneously on teaching and support strategies.40 At Minerva University, CAO Stephen Kosslyn said they track hundreds of learning factors as students develop 97 habits of success and foundational concepts.41

In K-12, learner profiles are distributed information sources including a limited student record in a student information system, a gradebook with assignment scores, and spreadsheets that capture test scores. Most of the formative feedback, behavioral feedback, and work and service feedback — as well as college and career discussions — never make it into a learner profile. Each state needs to define a common electronic student record. Every student ought to have access to his/her data in a machine-readable portable profile. Privacy, management, and access issues are obviously important.

41 Source: Kosslyn, Steven. Interview. December 2017.

Impact Opportunities

Improve integration of transcripts, learner profiles, and scheduling tools.

There is plenty of room for technology developments and infrastructure to ensure that the tracking and reporting of credentials is a cohesive process.

Student Learning Supports

Schools must ensure that all students are known members of a community and receive both “wrap-around” and instructional supports.

Given broader learning aims — including transferability of knowledge and skill, student agency, critical thinking, and a host of social-emotional skills — student supports need to be better than ever. These include, but are not limited to:


Some supports are “macro” in nature, such as the implementation of advisory systems or other structures that are student-centered by design. Most advisory systems include some form of 1:1 contact on a weekly (or sometimes daily) basis focused on goal setting, time management, learning priorities, and — in the case of a project-based environment — strategies for project completion. Most schools use advisory to personalize the secondary experience.

Expert Insight

Known by Name, Strength, & Need

Rebecca Wolfe of Jobs for the Future notes that embedding a personalized approach (tailoring learning to students’ strengths, needs, and voice) is critical to the overall success of CBE. She notes, “I am excited to see the field taking seriously how to do CBE in a personalized, student-centered way that pays attention to equity concerns.”42 She cautions that, at the other extreme, one could meet the letter of the definition of CBE in a way that is cheap, clear, and easy — and miss the spirit of it, in which students engage in a personal way that helps close opportunity gaps.

42 Source: Wolfe, Rebecca. Interview. December 2017.


Advisory or homeroom structures can also be used to teach SEL. Social and emotional learning is now front and center in American education. “The good news is that it’s not a fad,” said CASEL chair Tim Shriver. “The bad news is that there is not a supply of high-quality, evidence-based training, curricula, or assessment tools.”43 CASEL suggests providing frequent feedback to students in areas of social and emotional learning, but avoiding incorporating immature measures into old accountability systems.44

College, Career, & Life Readiness

Naviance is still the most prominent college and career planning tool (but could be a lot more student-centric). The College Board offers Big Future resources that can serve as content for advisory. (See recent Getting Smart case study on Personalizing Readiness.MyWays from NGLC is a comprehensive outcome framework shared by 130 new schools. Like the Summit Public Schools outcomes, MyWays includes Habits of Success and Wayfinding (both build on the work of David Conley). The 4Cs, advocated for by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and EdLeader21, are well-represented (see reports on all four outcome categories).

Learning Supports

Next-generation learning platforms (discussed above) that emphasize personalization help identify students and groups that need extra time and attention. It is critical that there are systems in place to identify students who need additional support in order to develop and demonstrate competency. Personalized differentiation of instruction, identification of need, and next steps to ensure success are all critical and certainly worthy of significant attention.

Teacher Preparation & Development

Meeting students where they do not only require a shift in their learning environment; it also requires teachers to be prepared to make the instructional movement toward learner-centered, mastery-based environments. According to the article “Threshold Concept,” one of the biggest issues to tackle is building teacher professional judgment. It is suggested that “building professional capacity in the educator workforce is the best thing we can do in the long term to ensure success for every student.”45

There are a couple of examples of higher education taking a competency-based approach to their preservice programs: Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University. An example of a competency-based national graduate school is Relay GSE (developed by Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First).

Expert Insight

Differentiating & Personalizing Instruction

According to Chris Sturgis at CompetencyWorks, “Personalization and competency go hand-in-hand. Without competency education, personalization may result in variable achievement. Without personalization, it is unlikely that all students will reach outcomes.”

Impact Opportunities


Promote an integrated approach to academic, social, and emotional development.

Market momentum is ahead of expert agreement on what to call work-ready skills and how to measure them. There are several SEL frameworks that are working on integration with academic development and the development of assessments.

Provide exemplar advisory systems.

With the dynamic scheduling of individual progress models, advisory systems provide a central place to teach social and emotional skills, monitor progress, and connect young people to support systems. A comprehensive advisory platform would be helpful to many schools, but creating the culture, structure, and teacher supports is the harder work. Implementation is very difficult and requires training not typically part of teacher preparation. Advisory systems support well-developed competency-based learning models.

Advance advisory implementation for college, career, and life readiness.

An advisory structure is a key aspect of secondary education particularly when students are moving at their own pace in several outcome areas. Implementation is very difficult and requires training not typically part of teacher preparation.

There are some limitations regarding preparation. For the foreseeable future, CBE will remain idiosyncratic so generic preparation will have limited value; the clinical practice portion of preparation will need to be model specific.

Micro-credentials give teachers a degree of voice and choice in their professional learning by allowing them to pick skills important to their own learning plan and to demonstrate growth in ways relevant to their classroom.

Digital Promise approves and Bloomboard hosts several hundred teacher micro-credentials, most in skill sequences. Current offerings are somewhat limited, and there is yet to be developed a comprehensive skill map to guide development. MIT also offers teacher micro-credentials.

Two Teachers’ Perspective on CBE

“Competency-based education is best-practice teaching. It is dependent on the teacher’s ability to intentionally meet the needs of the individual student. Recognizing competency-based learning as what is best for students is a paradigm shift for most educators. While it can be challenging and overwhelming to think logistically about how to be effective in meeting each child’s learning modalities, pace, and needs, it is truly the most efficient way to ensure that every child is getting the most out of their time in the classroom.” 47

— Lauren Vann and John Paul Sellers

Impact Opportunities


Develop educator leadership support campaigns.

Many schools and district leaders want to pivot to a CBE approach, but don’t know what to do or how to do it. Providing examples and tools will support widespread adoption.

Seek out technical assistance for school improvement.

Ensure a systemic approach to CBE through school improvement support.

Promote competency-based education teacher preparation and professional learning.

To fully embrace personalized and competency-based learning, teachers should experience it in preparation and in ongoing professional development. Giving people a place to start as we seek to support educators in the field of competency-based education is a set of educator competencies for personalized, learner-centered teaching that was developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Jobs for the Future.

Support a teacher micro-credential system.

Micro-credentials for pre-service and veteran teachers offer a way for educators to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve obtained through various pathways.

Policy & Advocacy

Because CBE is a fundamentally different way to frame learning, it requires new policies that guide factors such as learning, assessment, funding, staffing, supports, schedules, and matriculation.

New England has led the country with policy changes and, while implementation results have not yet realized all potential benefits, we believe there are lessons that can be learned regarding change efforts.

Expert Insight

New Hampshire Policy Reflections

Looking back at the journey to a proficiency-based approach in New Hampshire, Paul Leather (who served as Deputy Commissioner at New Hampshire’s Department of Education prior to his current role at the National Center for Innovation in Education) reflected on the two highest leverage moves they made:

1. Defining credit as mastery (not the Carnegie Unit).

2. Establishing performance assessments, including building and assessing them at a local level.

Paul noted, “As we look at asynchronous mastery and students moving on as a system, all of the policy elements that support that become important; it becomes a process of knitting it all together.”48

48 Source: Leather, Paul. Interview. December 2017.

There is a movement among states to consider CBE as it relates to flexibility within the time schedule, competency-based diplomas, assessments, and the like. There is much to learn from these states as they develop policies that actively promote CBE and remove obstacles to starting these initiatives and/or they support local competency-based innovation.

Many organizations have begun tracking state policy measures around the topic, and a Spring 2017 ExcelinEd report, PolicyPilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape (Achieve and iNACOL have also done scans), suggests that states are at different levels of maturity in this area. The ExcelinEd report outlined the findings of an examination of current legal and policy foundations related to competency-based education in K-12 systems in all 50 states and D.C. The excerpts below draw heavily from that report, which outlines main approaches, including flexibility from time-based systems and encouraging innovation. Additional state policy examples can be found in the appendix.

1. Flexibility from Time-Based Systems

Traditional systems which require seat time do not typically reflect how most students best learn: on their own learning paths, within their own timeframes. When systems move away from the requirements of seat time, educators are freed up to think about personalizing learning and not time constraints.

While most states still have seat-time requirements, many are moving toward flexibility when it comes to credit, advancement, and graduation policies. For example, New Hampshire abolished the Carnegie Unit and awards credits diplomas based on demonstrations of competency rather than seat time. Many other states have not yet changed statewide policy, but they have created an option for districts to move away from time-based requirements. Michigan, for example, allows Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to apply for a waiver of the minimum seat-time requirements, while Oregon’s credit options allow LEAs to offer credits based on demonstration of proficiency.

2. Competency-Based Diplomas or Graduation Requirements

For decades, most states have allowed alternative pathways to a diploma through GED programs. However, only a few states have policies specific to competencies and diplomas or transcripts. Vermont, for example, requires LEAs to have proficiency-based graduation requirements based on state standards, starting with the graduating class of 2020. Arizona allows for schools to opt-in to the performance-based Grand Canyon Diploma. While Maine was on the path to a proficiency-based diploma for all students, the state has since repealed the mandate and made the diploma optional. Further analysis of what was behind the repeal will be critical. Regardless, one useful contribution Maine has made is a set of Guiding Principles to define cross-curricular skills for which each student must demonstrate proficiency for high school graduation.*

3. Acceptance of Competency-Based Diplomas and Credits by Higher Education

The challenges of college admissions are real and perceived (for example, many applicants assume that it’s all about GPA and SAT when most selective colleges value broader development), as college admissions officers do need to understand the rigor of competency-based transcripts and how they compare to traditional diplomas and awards. Students and parents may also worry about participation in competency-based programs if they think the transcripts and credits could affect the application process. In addition, many scholarship programs and other programs may still be based on GPA or class rank and not accept competency-based transcripts. For example, the popular scholarship search engine Scholarships.com lists hundreds of scholarships that are available based solely upon minimum GPA.

Policy examples include the Utah requirement that institutes of higher education shall recognize and accept a diploma earned in a competency-based program in the enabling legislation for their Competency-Based Pilot Grants. The New England Secondary Schools Consortium (NESSC) — a collaboration of five states encouraging proficiency-based graduation and personalized learning pathways — secured a statement of support from 68 public and private higher education institutions which notes that “unequivocally, students with proficiency-based grades and transcripts will not be disadvantaged in any way” in the admissions process.

4. Anytime, Anywhere Learning

Anytime, anywhere learning means “students have equitable options to learn outside of the typical school schedule and away from the campus. Whether that means studying online, completing an internship over the summer, or taking advantage of some other out-of-school opportunity, they can receive credit for the knowledge and skills they master.”49


The good policy acknowledges that such learning exists by notating in student records and supporting LEA’s as they look to expand these flexible learning opportunities. Louisiana’s Supplemental Course Academy program is considered the most developed nationally with hundreds of online and face-to-face courses offered by state-approved providers using a flexible funding model. The Florida Virtual School is focused on “any path, any pace, any time, any place” learning with credits awarded based on individual student progression rather than time-based requirements.

5. State Assessment Systems that Support CBE

It will take time to develop assessments that not only reflect student-centered and competency-based learning approaches, but that also support and inform instructional practices. Aside from time, assessment redesign takes significant technical and financial investment, but we have several examples of how it can successfully be done.

Florida End-of-Course (EOC) assessments, while not purely competency-based assessments, are an example of testing flexibility (also exercised in other states; for example, New York). The EOCs are administered for Biology, U.S. History, Civics, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry and are aligned to state standards. Students may take the EOC assessments at five points throughout the year, which include multiple retake testing opportunities. The assessments are computer-based, though paper-based or other versions are available for students with disabilities who need accommodations. Students who do not complete the assessment by the end of the assessment time are permitted to continue working until the end of the school day.

New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) began under the state’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver. A small number of LEAs are voluntarily piloting the system, which replaces traditional standardized testing with performance-based assessment developed at the statewide level that is designed to support deeper learning, and that is integrated into students’ day-to-day work. PACE was an inspiration for ESSA’s Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority.

The shift to a personalized, competency-based approach requires more than a handful of strategic line-item policy changes. It also calls for a policy that creates space for — and encourages — innovation. Some states have launched pilot programs that encourage CBE incubation at the LEAs and/or school level, based upon state goals and priorities.

Some states have tied pilots to competitive grant funding while others have identified sites based on legislation. Examples include Idaho, which created an initial cohort of incubators for mastery-based education in FY2017, and Ohio, which sponsored a CBE pilot with five sites receiving up to $200,000 each.

Other innovation programs or funds go beyond just CBE and allow LEAs and/or schools to apply for funding in one or more areas. The innovation opportunities are typically tied to state policy and priorities but are often quite broad. Colorado’s Innovation Schools Act authorizes innovation zones and innovation schools. Georgia’s Innovation Fund began as a part of Georgia’s Race to the Top plan and provided grants to invest in local efforts “to plan, implement, and scale innovative education programs that advance student achievement” throughout the state.

As referenced throughout, those moving forward with a long view will emphasize systemic changes, including high-impact policies such as a proficiency-based diploma. Even better, states will take a comprehensive approach to modify policies to not only allow — but also promote — a competency-based approach.

After all, a policy is only as good as the field’s awareness of it and ability to use it. The ExcelInEd report notes, “Even though many states have flexible policies, it does not appear that they have been significantly used by schools and LEAs to date. Lack of awareness of flexibility, lack of knowledge on how best to use that flexibility, or administrative hurdles to obtain that flexibility may account for this. However, competency-based programs can only be effective if LEA and school leaders know about the opportunity to create them and can then translate the opportunity for flexibility into a new educational approach.”50

The iNACOL map below provides a snapshot of state policy progress as of May 2018.

Expert Insight

High School &
THhe Future of Work

Explore XQ’s High School & the Future of Work: A Guide for State Policymakers for insights on what states can do to stimulate high school transformation.

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Advanced States

Those states with comprehensive policy alignment and/or an active state role to build capacity in local school systems for competency education.


Developing States

Those states with open state policy flexibility for local school systems to transition to competency education.

Emerging States

Those states with limited flexibility in state policy–usually requiring authorization from the state–for local school systems to shift to compentency education, for exploratory initiatives and task forces, and/or with minimal state activity to build local capacity.

No Policies
in Competency

Those states with open state policy flexibility for local school systems to transition to competency education.


ILN States

Those states with limited flexibility in state policy–usually requiring authorization from the state–for local school systems to shift to compentency education, for exploratory initiatives and task forces, and/or with minimal state activity to build local capacity.

Impact Opportunities


Advocate for regional and state policy.

State policy that drops seat-time requirements and adopts competency-based diplomas and policies will be key to realizing the benefits of personalized learning, though policymakers should be careful to have a well-thought-out alternative (ideally with some guardrails in place) before making this transition. Lack of school and district progress suggests that reframing goals and reducing barriers are insufficient as change mechanisms.

Establish regional higher-ed consortiums.

College entrance requirements are often cited as a reason for traditional courses, credits, and tests. Regional working groups can help.

Promote a competency-based transcript.

High school staff and administration are concerned that a competency-based transcript will disadvantage students for college admissions. Development of new transcript models (e.g. MTC) can help.

Support development of innovative diploma networks.

A common competency transcript could serve as the user interface for networks of schools (even states) that share competency definitions. A few international schools have expressed interest in a proposed innovation diploma network that combines required experiences and micro-credentials. U.S. schools would be required to meet state graduation requirements but may be able to get waivers for thoughtful proposals.

Adjust staffing and funding model.

Current staffing and funding models are based on the traditional, time-based model. Equitable CBE will require more time and supports for students that need help. A balance of weighted funding will be required.

Support development of innovative diploma networks.

School district leadership teams and boards would benefit from support with competency-related policy, including assessment, grading, promotion, staffing, and funding. Sample board policies would help boards know what to do and in what order.

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