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Aurora Institute

Progress Towards Competency Education in North Carolina

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Gentz

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Like too many K-12 students in US schools, most North Carolina students currently learn in an outdated time-based system that is not designed around their learning. A new law in North Carolina may change that; it signals an important statement of support for competency education, a framework for student-centered learning that’s garnering increasing support in states and districts.

Earlier this month, North Carolina Governor McCrory signed HB 97, which encourages a redesign of the state K-12 academic assessments to align with competency-based learning. It’s not binding, and the state wouldn’t be able to change its systems of assessments without US Department of Education approval.

This new legislation could lead to a redesign of state assessments around student learning. Assessments that are designed around student learning should measure mastery of competencies aligned to standards, with multiple measures, performance assessments, and evidence providing educators with a data-driven guide for prioritizing continuous improvement of student learning to ensure that every student is on pace to graduation. This would require a radical shift in thinking for what assessments look like for North Carolina students.

Competency education: Definition and policy frameworks

In 2011, iNACOL and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) convened one hundred experts from the field to establish a working definition for competency education. Competency-based approaches require alignment under the following five elements:

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

The iNACOL State Policy Frameworks urge states to create competency-based education systems to ensure all students have the opportunity to attain the knowledge and skills necessary for success in college and careers. Comprehensive state strategies include:

  • Moving away from seat time to redefine academic credits around student learning (North Carolina allows this on a student-by-student basis through its credit by demonstrated mastery policy);
  • Basing student progression on demonstrated mastery of competencies;
  • Creating a proficiency-based diploma;
  • Establishing a state task force on competency education;
  • Rethinking accountability around next generation learning models; and
  • Redesigning state systems of assessments to support competency education.

Progress in North Carolina

By signaling the state’s intent to redesign its systems of assessments around competency education, North Carolina is taking an important step towards a more comprehensive approach. Although it’s a largely symbolic move that doesn’t advance concrete action, North Carolina’s bill could be a helpful model for states that cannot garner the political will, funding, or federal approval for a more ambitious shift. States looking at this type of strategy should consider establishing a task force to chart a path forward for a student-centered systems of assessments.

What the law does

HB 97 includes iNACOL’s working definition of competency education (see above), and also states the intent of the General Assembly to “transition to a system of testing and assessments applicable for all elementary and secondary public school students that utilizes competency-based learning assessments to measure student performance and student growth, whenever practicable.”

Although the new law is not binding, the expression of intent to align assessments with competency education is a significant step forward. It gives the State Board of Education authority “to examine competency-based student assessment systems utilized in other states, including potential benefits and obstacles to implementing similar systems in North Carolina, and the relationship between competency-based assessments and innovative teaching methods utilized in North Carolina schools, such as blended learning models and digital teaching tools.”

Possible next steps for North Carolina

HB 97’s passage is a step towards a more comprehensive set of policies to enable competency education in North Carolina; however, there is still much work to be done. As a next step, North Carolina could establish a state task force on competency education that can chart the redesign of systems of assessments and a plan to move forward with the other comprehensive policy recommendations.

Full-scale changes to North Carolina’s state assessments would require US Department of Education approval. Last week, iNACOL wrote about the changes that are needed to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to allow states to redesign assessment around student learning.

iNACOL applauds North Carolina for taking an important step to redesign assessments around student learning and move closer to a comprehensive strategy on competency education.

To track developments in competency education and learn more about how you can get involved, make sure you are following @nacol on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter here.