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Meaningful Qualifications and State Policy: Certifying Knowledge in Competency-Based, K-12 Education Systems

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issues: State Policy, Create Meaningful Qualifications


How is it possible that our education system still has many students who lack basic reading and math skills when they hold a high school diploma?

Let’s examine what a diploma means and how we might re-envision this qualification.

Currently, most high school diplomas in the United States are based on transcripts that reflect credit for academic subjects based on meeting minimum seat-time requirements (or Carnegie units) and a passing grade, which may or may not signify mastery of the content. There is wide variability in grading practices and in the knowledge attained in given subjects, which is evidenced by high remediation rates in entry-level college courses. College faculty often cite the underpreparedness of high school graduates for the rigor of college courses. Today, the only thing we can know for sure about a high school graduate in most U.S. school districts is that they have put in the required seat time in the requisite courses. When schools are passing students along and graduating them with major gaps in skills and knowledge, they are doing students a disservice.

How could the high school diploma align to a more comprehensive definition of success and be more transparent about achievement? This is one area where state policymakers and communities can take action. Whether a community conversation or a state conversation, the idea of engaging communities and families in conversations around what is different in the 21st century, and around what students need to know and be able to do, is increasingly important. A more meaningful high school credential would focus on the knowledge, skills and competencies a student has earned based on evidence of mastery.

A conversation on creating meaningful qualifications could help states and communities to answer the following questions:

  • What would a more innovative high school diploma look like?
  • How can we create multiple pathways for students to engage in learning, including in the community, in museums, in internships and in place-based learning, with formal and informal learning opportunities inside and beyond classrooms?
  • How would a meaningful qualification, with a comprehensive e-portfolio, be valued and useful for entry to the next level of education, career pathway and lifelong learning?
  • How would this shift the focus toward ensuring students have targeted supports to reach future goals and success? and
  • How would this expand rich learning experiences that spark creativity and a thirst for lifelong learning?

There are alternatives to the American system of time-based credits and transcripts. Let’s challenge ourselves to rethink this – and create a meaningful credential that certifies knowledge and skills on mastery. Competency replacing Carnegie is the big idea.

Internationally, at least 47 countries (not including the U.S.) have developed national qualifications frameworks, formalized structures in which learning level descriptors and qualifications are used in order to understand learning outcomes for different credentials.

Qualifications frameworks facilitate competency-based qualifications that form linkages between K-12, higher education and the needs of the future workforce.

In the United States, proficiency-based graduation requirements are a promising policy to lend more meaning to credentials.

Why Meaningful Qualifications Are Important

Coherent education systems designed around meaningful qualifications hold promise to:

  • Motivate students to learn by clearly linking their studies with tangible outcomes;
  • Improve college persistence and graduation rates by reducing the need for remediation;
  • Reduce retraining costs for employers; and
  • Promote lifelong learning.

State Policy Action Steps to Make Qualifications Meaningful

The following are action steps for state policymakers to make qualifications more meaningful to students, institutions and employers:

  • Action Step #1: Create a working group on meaningful qualifications to study other states and countries qualification frameworks; consider opportunities in the state to align and improve K-12, higher education and workforce qualifications;
  • Action Step #2: Convene stakeholders to redefine student success with a comprehensive Profile of a Graduate based on the knowledge and skills that students need for success in college, career and civic life;
  • Action Step #3: Create proficiency-based graduation requirements and support their implementation by:
    • Aligning the requirements with a comprehensive profile of a graduate;
    • Creating resources and supports for school districts to effectively implement proficiency-based diplomas; and
    • Facilitating a process of moderation across districts to ensure that districts maintain the same high standards in the awarding of proficiency-based diplomas.

Results of a K-12 Education System Using Meaningful Qualifications

With meaningful qualifications in K-12 education, students will understand exactly what they need to know and be able to do to graduate ready to succeed after high school, fostering internal motivation in students and reducing remediation costs across education systems.  

A future state of education, in which all students are prepared for success, will provide much more meaningful qualifications, resulting in:

  • Creating better transparency through more accurate high school transcripts of what students know and can do with evidence and e-Portfolios;
  • Motivating students by clearly linking their studies with tangible outcomes;
  • Improving college persistence and graduation rates by reducing the need for remediation;
  • Reducing retraining costs to employers;
  • Promoting lifelong learning; and
  • Increasing coherence across education systems.

This is the fifth article in the Current to Future State series that explores the ideas in the upcoming iNACOL report titled: Current to Future State: Issues and Action Steps for State Policy to Support Personalized, Competency-Based Learning.

Learn more:

Follow us on social media: @nacol, @SusanDPatrick, @mariaworthen, @DaleKFrost, @ntruongedu


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