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Aurora Institute

Making Learning Personal: Eliminate Gaps and Ensure Mastery through Proficiency-Based Diplomas

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Dale Frost

Issue(s): State Policy, Redefine Student Success, Build Balanced Systems of Assessments

, which require students to demonstrate mastery of academic content before graduating, support the adoption of personalized, competency-based approaches to learning. They require graduation decisions to be based on students demonstrating what they have learned rather than how many credits they have accumulated.

Proficiency-based diplomas can structurally eliminate gaps in learning that result from traditional grading systems, which can allow large learning gaps to persist and even grow over time.

With proficiency-based graduation requirements, schools begin to design powerful, personalized, student-centered learning environments with multiple pathways to learning in order to ensure that students have different ways to learn. Students also have to demonstrate high levels of mastery on state standards and meet the expectations needed to graduate and be successful in the future.  

The high rate of remediation in college demonstrates that many students are not being adequately prepared in traditional high school settings. According to National Center for Education Statistics, almost one-third of first- and second-year undergraduate students report having taken at least one remedial course in college.

Remediation is just one of the reasons states move to proficiency-based diplomas. Another reason is because they provide a strong incentive for schools to personalize learning to ensure students can demonstrate mastery of academic knowledge, skills and core competencies for post-secondary success.

State Examples of Proficiency-Based Diplomas and Graduation Requirements


Vermont has defined proficiency-based graduation requirements as “the locally-delineated set of content knowledge and skills that have been determined to qualify a student for earning a high school diploma.” These requirements “assure that when students show mastery in the essential skills and knowledge of diverse content areas and consequently receive a high-school diploma, they are prepared for the college, career and citizenship opportunities ahead.”

Vermont’s Education Quality Standards were approved by the Vermont State Board of Education in 2013, and require schools to have proficiency-based graduation requirements for students graduating in 2020 and for each subsequent graduating class.

The state allows students to demonstrate mastery through multiple means, including teacher-designed assessments, papers, presentations, portfolios, or projects.

Local school districts adopt their own specific graduation requirements but must adhere to state standards in the following curriculum areas:

  • Literacy
  • Mathematical content and practices
  • Scientific inquiry and content knowledge
  • Global citizenship
  • Physical education
  • Health education
  • Artistic expression
  • Transferable skills, including communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, inquiry, problem solving and the use of technology.


In 2012, the Maine legislature passed L.D. 1422, which requires schools to issue proficiency-based diplomas for the graduating class of 2018 and beyond. An analysis of Maine’s implementation made the following observation:

Although most, if not all, of the state’s districts are still fairly early in their journeys, they’re already seeing benefits that include improved student engagement, greater attention to the development of robust intervention systems, and more deliberate, collective, and collaborative professional work.

Students will have to demonstrate proficiency in the following content domains:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social studies
  • Health and physical education
  • Career and education development
  • World languages
  • Visual and performing arts

In 2014, the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) announced that all the public colleges and universities as well as three private colleges in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont pledged to accept proficiency-based transcripts and that applicants with proficiency-based diplomas will not be disadvantaged in any way in the college admissions process.  

As Maine has progressed towards implementing proficiency-based diplomas, some have voiced concerns that students are not going to be prepared by 2018 to show mastery in all eight content domains. Consequently, L.D. 1627, which was passed and signed in April 2016, pushes back the proficiency-based graduation requirements to 2021. It also phases in the required domains so that it will be 2025 when students will have to show proficiency in all 8 content domains.


In 2007, Colorado passed law H.B. 07-1118, which requires each school district to develop graduation requirements that meet or exceed requirements developed by the Colorado State Board of Education.

In response, the Colorado Department of Education released its Menu of College and Career-Ready Demonstrations. These options include minimum scores on college placement exams, college entrance exams, AP and IB exams, passing grades in concurrent enrollment courses, and individualized success as demonstrated by industry certifications or capstone projects.

The Colorado Department of Education has provided guidance to school districts interested in utilizing industry certifications or capstone projects to meet student graduation requirements.

These requirements will take effect for the graduating class of 2021. The Colorado Department of Education has provided extensive information on the history and roll-out of these revised graduation requirements.


In 2011, Arizona created the Grand Canyon Diploma, a central part of the Move On When Ready program that Arizona high schools can participate in voluntarily.

Students can graduate with a Grand Canyon Diploma by earning scores determined to be equivalent to college readiness by the Arizona State Board of Education on one of the approved assessment systems (primarily Cambridge and ACT QualityCore). According to the Center for the Future of Arizona, “Move On When Ready is working with more than 20 diverse high schools, impacting more than 26,000 students statewide.”

Recommendations for States

  • Create proficiency-based diplomas.
  • Redefine student success for high school graduation by defining competencies for what students should know and be able to do.
  • Support building capacity and system alignment processes with and across school districts to calibrate the meaning and measures of proficiency.
  • Create resources and supports for school districts to effectively implement proficiency-based diplomas.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have a unique opportunity to begin conversations with their local communities and school systems to reflect deeply on and answer the following fundamental question, “What should success look like for students?”

Proficiency-based diplomas can be one of the natural outgrowths of that conversation, which can lead to all students graduating prepared to succeed after high school.

Interested in other promising policies for personalized learning? See our other resources and blogs in this series: