Competency-Based Education


What is Competency-Based Education?

Competency-based education is a term that describes learning progressions based on mastery of content rather than passage of time.

Alternative TextCompetency-based learning is a system of education, often referred to as proficiency or mastery-based, in which students advance and move ahead on their lessons based on demonstration of mastery. In order for students to progress at a meaningful pace, schools and teachers provide differentiated instruction and support.

As competency education expands across the country, more people are seeking to understand what it is, how to implement it and how to revise policies to better support learning and student achievement. 

During the Competency-based Education Summit hosted by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in 2011, participants developed the following working definition of competency:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

In a competency-based education system, students understand learning objectives and also know what they must “know and show” to be proficient. If a student does not demonstrate adequate proficiency to advance, they must be provided with supports and interventions that help them fill the gaps in their knowledge and skills.

How Widespread is Competency-based Education?

Many states have policies in place allowing schools and districts flexibility to award credit based on demonstrating competency rather than on seat time, but these policies vary widely in their scope. Challenges remain for schools and districts attempting to implement a competency-based learning system, including funding systems that are incompatible with flexibility, data systems that are incompatible to competency-based learning, and existing policies that restrict how school districts and schools can award credit.

Enacted Legislation:

  • Michigan HB 4313 (2017) appropriates $500,000.00 for competitive grants to districts for the design and implementation of competency-based education programs to provide enhanced choice to pupils and parents for the completion of the requirements for kindergarten through a high school diploma.
  • Nevada AB 110 (2017) requires the Department of Education to establish a pilot program to provide competency-based education, revises provisions governing the requirements for a pupil to receive credit for a course of study without attending the classes for the course, requires the Department of Education to conduct a public awareness campaign regarding competency-based education, and authorizes a competitive grants program to carry out the pilot program.
  • South Carolina HB 3969 (2017) requires the State Department of Education, working with the Education Oversight Committee, to design and pilot district accountability models that focus on competency-based education.
  • Utah SB 34 (2017) establishes the Reimbursement Program for Early Graduation From Competency-Based Education, authorizing the State Board of Education to reimburse a local education agency that offers a competency-based education for a student who graduates early from the local education agency.
  • Florida HB 1365 (2016) establishes the Competency-based Education Pilot Program to provide an educational environment that allows students to advance to higher levels of learning upon the mastery of concepts and skills through statutory exemptions relating to student progression and the awarding of credits.
  • Illinois HB 5729 (2016) creates the competency-based, high school graduation requirements pilot program in which students advance once they have demonstrated mastery, and receive more time and personalized instruction to demonstrate mastery, if needed.
  • Utah SB 143 (2016) creates the Competency-Based Education Grants Program to improve educational outcomes in public schools by advancing student mastery of concepts and skills.
  • Idaho HB 110 (2015) directs the Department of Education to begin Idaho's transition to a mastery-based education system.
  • Iowa HF 215 (2013) establishes the competency-based education grant program to award grants to no more than ten school districts annually for purposes of developing, implementing, and evaluating competency-based education pilot and demonstration projects.
  • Maine LD 949 (2011) requires high school students to demonstrate achievement in core learning areas to earn a standards-based diploma rather than a traditional time-based diploma.
  • Ohio SB 311 (2007), the Ohio Core Curriculum Act, requires school districts to allow students to earn high school credit based on demonstrated subject area competency, instead of completed hours of classroom instruction. 

State Board Actions:

  • Connecticut. The Connecticut State Board of Education's Five-year Comprehensive Plan for 2016-21, Ensuring Equity and Excellence for All Connecticut Students, states that Connecticut will launch "an online repository of valuable tools, including resources for parental and community engagement, to assist local school districts to plan for and implement the transition to Mastery-Based Learning."
  • Vermont. In 2014, the Vermont Board of Education enacted new Education Quality Standards. Beginning with the graduating class of 2020, schools’ graduation requirements must be rooted in demonstrations of student proficiency, as opposed to time spent in classrooms.
  • Oregon. In 2007, the State Board of Education voted to adopt new high school graduation requirements. To earn a diploma, students will need to successfully complete the credit requirements, demonstrate proficiency in the Essential Skills, and meet the personalized learning requirements. Students will also have the option to earn credit for proficiency.
  • New Hampshire. In 2005, the New Hampshire Board of Education began requiring high schools to assess students based on their mastery of course-level competencies, rather than time spent in class.
  • Rhode Island. In 2003, the Rhode Island Board of Regents passed regulations that require high school students to demonstrate achievement in standards-based content as well as applied-learning skills. Schools must offer students opportunities to complete exhibitions, portfolios, or end-of-course assessments to demonstrate mastery of required competencies.

Sunny Deye oversees NCSL's work on competency-based learning.

Additional Resources

CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency education in the K-12 education system:

iNACOL researches and shares promising practices shaping the future of K-12 competency-based, blended and online education:

Achieve works with states to raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability: