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Aurora Institute

We Have a Proficiency-Based Diploma. Now What?

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Chris Sturgis

Issues: State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education


This post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on January 27, 2017.

The trust in the conventional education system has been undermined by the tradition of awarding diplomas to students who do not possess the skills needed for college and careers. It has been possible in many districts to receive a diploma even though students are still reading at the elementary school level. In order to eliminate this practice of passing students on without the necessary skills, states are introducing policies that set the expectation that students will demonstrate proficiency at an agreed upon performance level in order to receive a diploma (i.e., a proficiency-based diploma).

The proficiency-based graduation policies developed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont appear to be high-leverage in terms of engaging districts; however, the diploma policy cannot stand alone. It is one thing to say that a diploma must be proficiency-based and an entirely different thing to create a system that will ensure students are making progress toward a diploma throughout each year of school. Even with proficiency-based diploma policies, states will find that they need to take additional steps to fully engage and support districts in ensuring that students can actually reach graduation-level proficiency.

First, there must be a strategy to engage all the districts beyond the coalition of the willing. For example, until Maine engaged districts through a self-assessment of their progress in implementation and offered flexibility in setting their own deadlines within state guidelines, there were many that had not yet demonstrated a commitment to change. Second, states may want to expedite the process by helping districts understand the elements of personalized, competency-based systems and/or the implementation process. Maine provided training opportunities early on and Vermont has complemented their policy with training for supervisory unions. Rhode Island used a more prescriptive approach in requiring secondary schools to implement a set of practices. 

New Hampshire provides a valuable case study. The state essentially created a proficiency-based diploma through the introduction of competency-based credits and the expectation that districts would establish a set of graduation competencies. However, districts could initially minimize the impact of the policy by only focusing on credits instead of taking advantage of the policy to redesign the system. Only through the combination of competency-based credits, graduation competencies, revision of the education code to align with competency education, a strategy to offer personalized professional development to teachers, the powerful PACE initiative to calibrate and build the capacity for performance-based assessments, and the piloting of a new accountability policy more aligned with student learning was New Hampshire able to build a statewide momentum for the conversion to competency education.

As the states adjust their graduation policies, a number of issues are being raised that will require attention:

  • Is a proficiency-based diploma enough, or are other policies needed that can set the direction, clarify expectations, and generate greater flexibility for supporting personalized, competency-based systems?
  • What areas will students be expected to demonstrate proficiency in to receive a diploma?
  • Are credits still required if the diploma is proficiency-based?
  • Are all diplomas the same, specialized, or personalized?
  • How do we respond to students who are not proficient at the end of four years of high school?
  • How do we really trust that a student has the skills for college and careers when graduating with a proficiency-based diploma?

To learn more about advancing K-12 competency education in New England states, download the latest report and follow us on Twitter (@CompetencyWorks).

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