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Aurora Institute

State Policy & K-12 Competency-Based Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Dale Frost, Maria Worthen

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education, Issues in Practice

The traditional, time-based K-12 education system is ill-equipped to prepare all students for success. Even with high school graduation rates at an all-time high (82%), graduates are entering college with 37% needing remediation, and only 59% of college undergraduates succeed in attaining a degree.

Competency-based education is a next generation learning model that focuses on all students achieving mastery, preparing them for success in college, careers and civic life. State leaders can support policy for K-12 competency-based education to help all students succeed.


To prepare all students for success in the future economy, K-12 education systems need to transform. Competency-based education systems move away from the traditional seat-time-based, one-size-fits-all model of schooling; instead, students advance upon demonstrated mastery and are empowered with the supports they need to succeed. Competency-based education models will ensure students are ready for a 21st century economy and can succeed in college, careers and civic life.

What can policymakers do to encourage a shift to K-12 competency education? No matter where a state is starting, there are different entry points policymakers can take to enable and support competency-based systems.

iNACOL has released a new issue brief, State Policy & K-12 Competency-Based Education, which provides an overview of competency-based education, and provides state policy recommendations and resources for policymakers who are ready to enable and support competency education.

Below is a brief introduction to competency-based education and how it differs from the traditional K-12 education system.

What Is Competency-Based Education?

In 2011, one hundred innovators in the field came together where they developed a working definition of high-quality, competency-based education with the following five elements::

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery — By advancing upon demonstrated mastery rather than on seat time, students are more engaged and motivated, and educators can direct their efforts to where students need the most help.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students — With clear, transparent learning objectives, students have greater ownership over their education.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs — When students struggle with a concept, they receive timely, personalized supports. Often, schools with personalized, competency-based learning environments provide flexible time during the day for students to receive additional instructional support in the area where they need it.
  4. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students — New systems of assessments give students real-time information on their progress and provide the opportunity to show evidence of higher order skills, whenever they are ready, rather than at set points in time during the school year.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions — Personalized, competency-based learning models meet each student where they are to build the knowledge, skills and abilities they will need to succeed in postsecondary education, in an ever-changing workplace, and in civic life.

How Is Competency-Based Education Different from the Traditional K-12 Education System?

Competency-based education models will ensure students are ready for a 21st century economy and can succeed in college, careers and civic life. Competency-based learning requires several fundamental shifts in systems, structures and assumptions rooted in the traditional model of education.

Key differences include:

  1. The traditional model of education is time-based. Schools batch students by age, and move them through the same content and courses at the same pace. Competency-based education is based on learning: students must demonstrate mastery of learning, with time-bound targets.
  2. There is a high variability in how teachers determine proficiency in traditional settings. Competency-based systems build educator capacity to make judgments of student mastery to the same high standards and calibrated for consistency with other teachers.
  3. The traditional system is organized to efficiently deliver curriculum. Competency-based education is organized to personalize learning.
  4. Traditional systems depend on extrinsic motivation. Competency education fosters intrinsic motivation by activating student agency and providing multiple pathways for learning to the same high standards.
  5. The traditional system is built on an institutional, fixed mindset, with direct instruction to a classroom of students, moving too fast (or too slow) for many learners. In contrast, a competency-based education system is built upon a growth mindset with a belief that all children can learn.
  6. In traditional systems, students are ranked and sorted based on variable outcomes, creating “winners” and “losers” and perpetuating patterns of inequality in society. Competency-based education meets students where they are to ensure that each one can be successful to the same high college- and career-ready standards.

State Policy & K-12 Competency-Based Education

Fully-developed, student-centered systems require significant shifts in policy and practice. What can policymakers do to encourage a shift to K-12 competency education? No matter where a state is starting from, there are various entry points along a continuum for policymakers to support and build competency-based, K-12 education systems in their states. The graphic below summarizes the different entry points where policymakers can catalyze transformation of K-12 education in their state, with varying levels of state leadership.

Download this iNACOL Issue Brief for more information on state policy recommendations and resources for K-12 competency education. Stay tuned for the second installment of this series, which will explore state policies to enable personalized, competency-based education.

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