Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Rhode Island: Putting Together the Pieces of a Competency-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This is the fifteenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

Rhode Island aspires to provide an educational system in which every student is enrolled in rigorous learning environments that meet their individual needs and through which students progress based upon their demonstrated mastery of essential, aligned, and agreed-upon rigorous academic and 21st century skills. Starting in early childhood, students have access to personalized learning experiences that are experiential, blended, flexible, and differentiated; as a result of these experiences, students will be able to control the pace, place, and content of their learning experience while meeting state and local Requirements.


Update: In February 2017 RIDE published Rhode Island’s Shared Understanding of Personalized Learning. You can find it at the new website eduvateRI

rhode-islandRhode Island was the first state to establish a proficiency-based diploma. The initial policy establishing a Diploma System, passed in 2003 by the Board of Education, set up proficiency-based graduation requirements in six content areas: math, English language arts, social studies, science, technology, and the arts. In addition, performance-based assessments were included as a graduation requirement to ensure students could apply their skills at higher levels as part of the state graduation requirements. The state now offers four types of performance assessments – comprehensive course assessments, exhibitions, graduation portfolios, or the Certificate of Mastery awarded by the RI Skills Commission – of which districts must select two for their graduation requirements.

The Diploma System

Under the Diploma System , students earned a diploma based on meeting three sets of requirements: the successful completion of a minimum of twenty courses covering the six content areas and two performance-based assessments. Students were required to demonstrate proficiency in the standards in each course, with districts determining the level of proficiency for graduation. A system of enhanced diplomas was introduced in 2011 with a Commissioner’s Seal on their diploma for demonstration of bi-literacy.

Since the establishment of the Diploma System, the Board of Education has added secondary school requirements of practices they consider essential for creating an aligned system. These practices include:

  • Individualized learning plans starting no later than sixth grade.
  • Multiple opportunities and measures for students to demonstrate proficiency.
  • Appropriate supports for students to meet objectives.
  • A progress plan that outlines the type and duration of academic support to be provided to students when they do not meet grade-level proficiency on the state assessments exams.
  • Literacy and numeracy interventions for any student performing one or more levels below grade level.
  • Multiple pathways for students to meet the high school graduation requirements, including career and technical programs, expanded learning opportunities, dual enrollment, and online learning.
  • Structures to offer personalized learning built into each middle and high school, with middle school also offering student advisories.

Rhode Island has several initiatives to support implementation, some driven by districts and others based on state-district partnerships. For example, eighteen schools participating in the League of Innovative Schools are learning more about how to create a proficiency-based system, with some moving toward proficiency-based grading. RIDE has launched the Scaling Up PBG Network in partnership with the Center for Collaborative Education to establish a network of secondary schools to develop a set of common performance assessments and establish high-quality assessment practices. There are also substantial efforts underway to introduce personalized learning, blended learning strategies, and career pathways into the Rhode Island schools.

Next Steps

The Board of Education approved a new strategic plan in 2015 based on an exemplary process of community engagement. The plan includes a vision for a RI graduate to be well prepared for postsecondary education, work, and life. He or she can think critically and collaboratively and can act as a creative, self-motivated, culturally competent learner and citizen. The values driving the vision are equity, support, diversity (culture and different bases of knowledge), autonomy, preparedness, personalization, and safety. Within the personalized learning priority, the first outcome is to increase number of schools implementing a school-wide proficiency-based model for instruction and advancement.



In order to eliminate any barriers caused by seat-time requirements, the 2011 Board of Education modified the definition of a course to be a connected series of lessons and learning experiences that:

1. Establish expectations defined by recognized standards,

2. Provide students with opportunities to learn and practice skills, and

3. Include assessments of student knowledge and skills adequate to determine proficiency at the level of academic rigor required by relevant content standards.


The Board of Education continues to refine the Diploma System with new regulations issued in the fall of 2016. In the new regulations, graduation requirements will be: 1) demonstrating proficiency in twenty courses and 2) completion of one performance-based diploma assessment that includes both applied learning skills and core content proficiency. Students are required to present their portfolio or exhibition to a review panel that will use a state-approved rubric.

Will State Policy Lead to Transformation

The challenge before Rhode Island is for districts to use the set of practices required by the state as the building blocks for creating proficiency-based systems. At this time, although many districts will describe themselves as having proficiency-based diplomas, few have been identified as embracing the values or responsiveness that would be expected in a proficiency-based system. Providence has started down the path toward proficiency-based learning by creating new high schools as part of the Opportunity by Design initiative launched by the Carnegie Corporation and Springpoint. However, for a proficiency-based system to fully develop, it will require districts to engage in a much fuller transformation process.

Other Articles about Rhode Island: