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Aurora Institute

New Hampshire Rocks Competency Education Policy

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

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Paul Leather
Deputy Commissioner of Education

There just isn’t any other way to say it. The proposal of minimum standards for competency-based schools approved by the New Hampshire Board of Education is so thoughtful, so detailed, so clear – it just rocks! According to the Keene Sentinel the Board unanimously approved the proposal. Next stop: a joint legislative committee with the Board adopting the standards in January.

For anyone involved with state policy, it’s worth taking the time to read the entire thing to see how New Hampshire is reworking its core policy around personalization and a competency-based diploma. In the meantime here are some of the highlights of the policy. (Please forgive me if I misinterpreted any of the policies, and let me know so I can correct it here.)

Definitions As always, policymakers have to clarify what language means. Here are just a few of the terms clarified at the beginning of the policy. The phrase acknowledgement of achievement is used when a student has demonstrated achievement of district competencies and/or graduation competencies. It plays an important role in allowing students to be recognized for what they have learned, wherever it might take place.  Competencies means student learning targets that represent key content-specific concepts, skills, and knowledge applied within or across content domains. Mastery means a high level of demonstrated proficiency with regard to a competency; Personalized learning means a process that connects learning with learner’s interests, talents, passions, and aspirations, including actively participating in the design and implementation of their learning. Note that student voice and choice is explicit.

Local Policy for Personalization: As in most states, schools are under local control. State policy can outline expectations but it is up to local schools boards to develop the full policies.  This policy outlining minimum standards sets the expectation that the local school board shall adopt and implement written policies and procedures no later than July 1, 2015 relative to 1) meeting the instructional needs of each individual student and 2) providing alternative means of demonstrating achievement of identified graduation competencies toward the awarding of a credit for a high school diploma or equivalent such as extended learning opportunities, career and technical education courses, and distance education.  In other words, district policies have to enable students to get the support they need and be able to learn anytime, anywhere.

Competency-based High School Diplomas and Credits: The local school board of each high school shall award a regular high school diploma to those students who achieve and demonstrate all graduation competencies as encompassed in at least 20 credits.  The local school board is required to have their high schools have competency assessments in place for all courses offered through the high school. The policy states that “Credits shall be based on the demonstration of district and or graduation competencies, not on time spent achieving these competencies. The credit shall equate to the level of rigor and achievement necessary to master competencies that have been designed to demonstrate the knowledge and skills necessary to progress toward college level and career work.”

Designed for Advancement: The first time that people try to get their head wrapped around a competency-based system they often jump to the conclusion that 15 year olds will be graduating from high school and districts will lose funding.  New Hampshire handled this issue brilliantly. Yes, students can demonstrate knowledge and skills on a placement pre-test for a particular course and receive acknowledgement of achievement. However, this just leads to them taking a more advanced course or an elective. If students under the age of 18, demonstrating all of the graduation competencies and credits, want to graduate early, they can with parental approval. However, if they want to stay in school they can take more advanced courses through distance education. My reading of the policy is that the school district covers the cost of online courses when the course isn’t offered at the school.  I interpret this to mean that the district will pay for college-level courses if students are advancing beyond the graduation competencies.

Furthermore just because a student has demonstrated the competencies doesn’t mean they stop learning and applying those skills. The policy explicitly states that “Students shall engage in learning concerning competencies in the areas of English/language arts and mathematics for every year they are in high school until graduation, regardless if English/Language Arts or mathematics graduation competencies have been achieved.”

Basic Instructional Standards:  This section requires school boards to have in place a number of policies for their instructional program, including policies on homework and grading, promoting students based on mastery, summer learning, and how students will demonstrate achievement of district and graduation competencies, including the awarding of credit for required subjects and open electives.

Note that the term “dispositions” has been replaced with work-study practices. From what I heard, it just wasn’t a term that worked with the general public.

Assessment. You can see the beginning of the systems of assessments that NH is trying to build that balances the different types of assessments we need to ensure students are progressing, that can double check that schools are indeed providing adequate instruction, and emphasizing school performance.  You can also see the beginning of a state policy that emphasizes continuous improvement of programs and schools. Below is a quick look at the actual policy (see page 26):

a) The local school board shall require no later than July 1, 2015 that each school:

(1) Provides for the ongoing assessment of district and graduation competencies through the use of local assessments that are aligned with state and district content and performance standards as provided in (b) below;

(2) Participates in the state-wide education improvement and assessment program as provided in (c) below;

(3) Participates in the New Hampshire performance assessments;

(4) When selected by the United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics participates in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP); and

(5) Supports student development of individual student digital portfolios.

b) The following elements shall be used as evidence by the department in determining whether a school complies with the requirements of (a) above:

(1) The school has a process for the selection, use, and interpretation of local assessment instruments;

(2) The school supports the authentic assessment of student learning outcomes through multiple formative and summative assessment instruments, including, but not limited to:

a. Educator observation of project-based learning, including off-site learning projects;

b. Competency-based or performance based assessments;

c. Educator observations of student performance; and

d. Project evaluation rubrics used to evaluate program proficiencies applied to integrated curriculum assignments, extended learning opportunities, career and technical education opportunities, and out of school learning environments;

(3) The school provides professional development for educators in the use of diagnostic tools to adjust instruction to meet personalized needs of students and to monitor progress; and

(4) The school has a systematic process for collecting and analyzing assessment data to: a. Identify needs for improvement; and b. Determine the effectiveness of educational programs in meeting student performance goals.

High School Curriculum, Credits, and Graduation Requirements: This section starting on page 62 has number of interesting policy components.

  • Instructional Program: This section outlines all the elements of what is needed to be in place in a competency-based school including: Procedures for diagnosing learner needs; Methods and strategies for teaching that incorporate learner needs;  Resource-based learning opportunities;  Techniques for the evaluation of student outcomes, including performance assessment of district competencies; and The provision of remedial instruction as needed. (p. 33)
  • Extended Learning: Extended learning is defined as “the primary acquisition of knowledge and skills through instruction or study outside of the traditional classroom methodology, including, but not limited, to: Independent study; Private instruction; Performing groups; Internships; Community service; Apprenticeships; and Online courses.” Later it also includes team sports in the list of approved ELO opportunities.On page 33, the expectation that districts will have local policies that “identify how the district shall engage students in creating, and support extended learning opportunities that occur outside of the physical school building and outside of the usual school day in which students demonstrate achievement as well as other educational experiences and instructional activities required…” The ELO’s are designed to: Provide acknowledgement of achievement or supplement regular academic courses; and Promote the schools and individual students’ educational goals and objectives. It goes on to state that “certified school personnel will oversee, although not necessarily lead, facilitate, or coordinate, an individual student’s program”, that the ELOs “be aligned with district and graduation competencies” and that the “acknowledgement of achievement shall be based on a student’s demonstration of district or graduation competencies, as approved by certified educator. Interestingly, it also builds in student choice by stating that students need to participate in selecting, organizing, and carrying out extended  learning activities. Equity is addressed by the policy stating that it be available to all students — no limiting ELOs to students because of behaviors or low grades.
  • Waiving Graduation Requirements: This is an interesting piece of the policy as it creates a situation in which students might get a diploma without having all the competencies. Essentially the Commissioner of Education can waive waive a particular graduation requirement and shall permit the local board to award a high school diploma to a student if the commissioner determines that it is in the best interest of the student and that there are circumstances beyond the control of the student, such as transferring into a NH school in 12th grade.  It seems perfectly reasonable and is also one of those non-race-based loopholes that can contribute to racial disparity.  States using this type of policy need to monitor how it is used and for whom. (p. 44)

Arts Education, Health and Wellness and CTE Are Expected to be Competency-based: There is a lot of attention starting on page 62 to how arts education, health and wellness and career-tech courses are to be competency-based with clear competencies, authentic assessments, and rubrics. In the initial definition section CTE is defined as including’ competency-based applied learning that contributes to the academic knowledge, higher-order reasoning and problem-solving skills, work attitudes, general employability skills, technical skills, and occupation specific skills, and knowledge of all aspects of an industry, including entrepreneurship, of an individual.

Professional Development: The section on professional development was quite thoughtful, reflecting the systems of supports that New Hampshire Department of Education has been putting into place.  The PD activities “are designed to improve professional knowledge, as measured in its success in meeting students’ needs and improving students’ learning”.  The professional development activities are to be student focused; data driven; research based; intensive; and sustained, and include job-embedded activities; research; collaboration; practice; and reflection.

Instructional Time:  There is still clearly outlined time-based policies with a 990 instructional hour school year and the instructional school day of an individual student not exceeding 5.75 hours in elementary schools and 6 hours of instructional time in middle and high school. Some people might think it should be eliminated – but until we have a meaningful alternative to think about cost-effectiveness, we need to continue to have inputs in place in state policy.


The only thing I expected to see but didn’t was something about extended graduation, allowing extra time for students to catch up and complete all the requirements.  Of course I may have missed it!

I would be remiss to point out the irony that in the same meeting that the New Hampshire Board of Education approved a proposal of minimum standards for competency-based schools they also recommended high school students take four years of math. They had been considering requiring it so they obviously saw the irony themselves. That’s a lesson for all of us – even as competency-based policy and practice barrels forward we are likely to see remnants of a time-based system, especially when we don’t have a fully developed alternative.