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Aurora Institute

Site Visit Takeaways

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

logoAs you may know, ACHIEVE has established a Competency-Based Pathways Work Group to examine how competency education may impact assessment, accountability, graduation requirements, and other state policies.  Working with leaders from ten states, Cory Curl and Anne Bowles are providing tools, research, and analysis so that state policymakers can assess opportunities to support competency education.

Cory and Anne have just completed site visits to Maine, Kentucky, Illinois, and Colorado, and shared their findings during a webinar (inspiring me to think about sharing insights that way rather than the blog….Hmm, what do you think?) Given that others had visited as well, we shared our insights. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Danville, Kentucky has been getting attention for their project-based learning  (See the show on PBS.) They see the ACT as a meaningful metric for determining college and career readiness and are moving toward improving ACT scores based on the college ready benchmarks.  Their website explains, “Students are considered to be college-ready by meeting specific benchmark scores for each content-area tested by the ACT. EXPLORE and PLAN also provide benchmark scores that tell us whether or not students are on track to meet those important ACT readiness scores. Scores from these assessments are also included in a school and district’s overall score.” They are now in the process of beginning to weave competency education into their work, keeping a strong focus on equity.


  • They visited four districts in Maine (hyperlinks will take you to resources on each of the districts RSU 57, RSU 2, RSU 18, and MSAD 15, all members of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning.) The MCCL has several strong partnerships, including the Great Schools Partnership and Reinventing Schools Coalition, and are working with the state to ensure that the process of converting to personalized, proficiency-based is a grassroots process.  Right now districts are embracing proficiency-based education in K-8 and exploring implementation in high schools.  Most of the colleges and universities are trying to reduce the sense of risk for high schools by pledging their full support for proficiency-based.
    • Student voice and choice are driving the changes in the classroom. The job of teachers is to keep an eye on how students are progressing and helping them stay on pace.
    • Transparency is at the heart of equity in Maine’s proficiency-based system.  There is no embarrassment for students who haven’t scored a 3 on a standard; rather, it is reinforced that mistakes and errors are part of the learning process.  However, it isn’t acceptable for a student to move on or to graduate without a 3 on learning targets. There is such strong commitment to a “3 or above” that it has created a cultural shift.
    • Interventions are triggered whenever students are not on “teacher pace.”   Interventions can range from asking for help from peers, mini-lessons from teachers, extra help during the day, and support before and after school.


  • Young Women’s Leadership Charter, no longer a fully competency-based school, shared some of their insights in how competency education can run into problems when there isn’t enough attention to pacing. Too many students found themselves in 12th grade trying to run around and demonstrate proficiency in standards that were to have been met in 9th grade.  The failure to master those earlier standards also impacted their learning overall. Achievement scores and graduation rates both suffered, but are now on the upswing. It’s a lesson to all of us to think about how we structure segments of learning to make sure students are advancing every step along the way.


  •  Adams 50, (check out the resources on their wiki) outside of Denver, Colorado has been able to lift all of their schools out of the lowest-performing categories over the past 3 years, which they attribute to the Competency-Based System (CBS). On May 9th they announced that the trend is continuing “with Adams County School District 50 once again [showing] improvement in third grade reading results on statewide TCAP testing.” District 50 is one of just two school districts in the metro area to show improvement over three consecutive years The Competency-Based System is most fully realized at the elementary school level where students have experienced only competency-based learning, while the shift to competency is continuing in middle and high school.


Some other takeaways from the site visits:

•  Competencies can be closely aligned with standards.  Schools don’t have to start completely from scratch in designing their competencies. (See Art and Science of Designing Competencies)

• The concept of teacher pace helped illuminate the dynamic in which supports need to be available so students can spend more time working in order to stay on teacher pace.

• Many educators are fully supportive of proficiency-based learning and emphasized that they wouldn’t want to return to a traditional classroom.

• The work is complex and challenging. Peers and partnerships are a vital part of getting proficiency-based system right.

Stay tuned  — we’ll hear about ACHIEVE’s policy ideas and tools in the fall.