Schools See Results With Competency-Based Learning - Digital Promise

Schools See Results With Competency-Based Learning

July 30, 2014 | By

Competency-based education is not a new concept, but it is one that is finally gaining traction in school districts from Alaska to New Hampshire and points in between.

The approach focuses on students mastering a specific skill or piece of knowledge. When students can demonstrate they’ve mastered the task at hand, when they can prove they’re competent in it, they progress to the next level, concept, or content area.

Technology allows educators to assess students in real time, determine how they are progressing on a given skill, and personalize instruction to each student.

Since students advance when they’re ready, they are not confined to traditional grade levels or letter grades. That means an eighth grader who breezes through her math content could move on to a ninth-grade math before the end of the semester or school year.

Instead of handing out As, Bs, or Cs, some competency-based schools use a grading scale that ranges from E for exceeding to U for unsatisfactory, with marks for limited progress and insufficient work shown.

Teachers who use the approach in their classrooms are quick to point out that empowering students to move at their own pace increases student engagement and performance. There are measurable outcomes to support this. Listed below are districts across the country that have seen results from competency-based education.


99 percent

At Muscatine Community School District in Iowa, nearly all high school students earned a grade of C or higher in their competency-based courses during the 2012-2013 school year. In courses following a more traditional model, 61 percent earned a C or higher.


84 students

Sanborn High School in New Hampshire saw a significant drop in discipline issues after the state moved to a competency-based system in 2005. The number of freshmen reported for discipline issues fell from 433 during the 2007-2008 school year to just 84 in 2011-2012.


71st percentile

Adams District 50 in Colorado was in the 28th percentile in reading nationally prior to adopting a competency-based curriculum. After the transition, the district climbed into the 71st percentile.


10 percent turnover

Prior to Chugach School District’s shift to competency-based education in 1994, teacher turnover at the Alaska district averaged close to 55 percent annually. Since 2004, the average turnover rate is 10 percent.


45-point gain

Within a year of implementing competency-based education, Lindsay Unified School District in California improved its scores on the state’s Academic Performance Index from 644 in 2009 to 691 in 2013, a 45-point gain.

Lindsay Unified’s culture shifted along with its academics. Suspension rates in the district dropped 41 percent, and gang membership rates fell from 18 to 3 percent.


As momentum grows and evidence mounts in support of competency-based education, Digital Promise is working with members of the League of Innovative Schools surface best practices, identify and overcome challenges, and moving toward a more student-focused education model.

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