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Aurora Institute


CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Thomas Rooney, Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District

I have received three requests over the past week asking for evidence of success from competency education models.  The truth of the matter is that we are not swimming in proof points. And it is very, very important for our continued work to advance competency education that we generate them. They do have to be more than anecdotal. They don’t have to be a third party random assignment evaluation.

A further complicating matter is that our current approaches to accountability are not designed to easily pick up the fact that students may be getting the help they need to fill academic gaps. Thus an “11th” grade student working to strengthen elementary school level math skills may be “ not proficient” in state tests even if they moved up three grade levels over the year. Perhaps a growth model will pick that up, but what we are finding is that the horrendous gaps generated by passing students along unprepared often challenge the limits of our accountability and assessment systems.

I have collected the few examples of evidence of competency education adding value below. There are a few more that I’m following up on. Please send me any and all that you might have…That way we can keep pulling together a solid argument for competency education.

Chugach (From Delivering on the Promise)

In 1994, the Chugach School District, serving 214 students over 20,000 square miles in impoverished communities, began a fundamental redesign of how they would educate their students. With the courage to confront the fact that 90 percent of their students could not read at grade level and only one student in 26 years had graduated from college, Chugach focused their mission on ensuring that all students learn to high standards.

The district engaged the community in establishing a performance-based approach, developing standards in ten content areas, new assessments, and modified reporting mechanisms. Within five years, Chugach School district saw the following results:

  • Over a five-year period, average student achievement on the California Achievement Test rose from the bottom quartile to the 72nd percentile.
  • The percentage of students participating in college entrance exams rose from 0 percent to more than 70 percent by 2000.
  • Between 1995 and 2000, teacher turnover was reduced to 12 percent; in the previous twenty-year history of the district, turnover was 55 percent yearly.

Chugach’s transformation gained them national attention, including the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for organizational excellence.

Adams County School District 50

After three years of implementation Adams 50 has started to see powerful results. All of their schools are now out of turnaround status. According to Oliver Grentham, Chief Education Officer, as reported in the Denver Post: “It has really elevated instruction in classrooms. The teachers know what it is they want to see from each student to prove they have reached proficiency.”

Lindsay Unified School District (Adapted from District website)

Lindsay Unified School District began the work to redesign the delivery of instruction in their schools in 2007. The actual implementation of the performance based system began with the 9th grade class in fall 2009 at Lindsay High School (LHS) with district-wide implementation in 2011. While we cannot measure the full impact of the PBS K-12, there is promising data that supports the conclusion that PBS is making a difference in the success of our students.

The potential impact of the PBS is demonstrated by the growth in student achievement at LHS during the first three years of implementation (2009-2012). Scores on the California Academic Performance Index (API) have grown by 91 points; English language arts (ELA) proficiency rates for 9th graders has increased from 29% (2009) to 41% (2012); for 10th grade students, ELA proficiency has grown from 25% in 2009 to 37% in 2012; the percentage of 11th graders proficient in ELA increased from 21% in 2009 to 42% in 2012. See the Education Week article for more information on Lindsay.

Boston Day and Evening Academy

One of the hardest things for any school to do is retain students that have had a history of bad experiences with schools and adults, as well as instability in their lives. So graduation rates are almost always lower for students that are over-age and undercredited, and we haven’t figured out a way in our accountability systems to make sense of this dynamic.  So let’s look at the students that do graduate from BDEA: Approximately 18 percent graduate in a year or less, 38 percent in one to two years, and 24 percent in two to three years. A whopping 83 percent enrolled in college after graduating.


We don’t have a lot of studies about competency education.  A 2010 report by Marzano Research Laboratory found that the Reinventing Schools Coalition framework (these are the folks who led the turnaround at Chugach) significantly impacts student achievement. This is from the RISC website:

Researchers compared 7 RISC districts and 8 Non-RISC districts in 3 states. Study findings:

  • The odds of a student in a RISC School scoring proficient or above on state tests are 2.3 times greater for reading, 2.5 times greater for writing, and 2.4 times greater for mathematics than the odds of a student scoring proficient or above on state tests at a Non-RISC School.
  • Compared to students in Non-RISC Schools, students in RISC Schools are 37% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for reading, 54% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for writing, and 55% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for mathematics.
  • In addition, the degree of RISC model implementation was found to relate to the number of students scoring proficient or above on state tests in reading and writing. The odds of a student in a High-RISC School scoring proficient or above in reading and writing were found to be about two times larger than the odds of a student in a Medium-RISC School scoring proficient or above.

Blended Learning

Given that many competency-based models use online or blended learning as well, it’s important to note that the U.S. Department of Education study of online learning, “Evaluation of Evidence-based Practice in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies” (2009) found:

“Overall, […] students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

In the same study, blended was the most effective in increasing achievement: “Instruction combining online learning with face-to-face elements had a larger advantage[ . . .]students that participated in online learning and who spent more time on task benefited the most.”

This doesn’t mean that ALL blended learning will produce these results. If you use design curriculum that isn’t challenging and meeting expectations for rigor, it’s likely you won’t see improvements in achievement.  As Susan Patrick says, “Blended learning takes the best practice of face-face instruction with the best practices of online.”