Skip to content
Aurora Institute

State Paths To A Competency-Based Education Approach

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Andrew Valent

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

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 2.07.26 PMThis post was originally published on the College & Career Readiness & Success blog on July 10, 2013.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) and the College and Career Readiness and Success (CCRS) Center recently hosted a webinar on implications for state policy in competency-based education systems. The discussion brought together national and state leaders to share what progress has been made in states, what has been learned in doing such work at the state level, and guidance on where other states might begin. The session covered topics ranging from setting a vision, capacity building, policy changes, and assessment and accountability, but what may have been most interesting were the contrasting narratives of scaling approaches across states. There is no standard approach that researchers can yet point to—implementation methods have varied dramatically across contexts, though certain common themes have emerged.

Common Vision

Presenters highlighted a common starting point when moving toward competency-based systems – developing a common vision. As states rationalized the move to a competency-based system, they first needed to come to consensus on what they wanted for all students. In order to achieve  buy-in across a very diverse set of stakeholders, including everyone from teachers to governors and legislators, states have  worked across a wide range of stakeholders in K-12, higher education, and elsewhere to develop a collective vision for what their students should know and be able to do. Many states have done this by establishing a definition of college and career readiness as the common goal for all students, and there are many commonalities in definitions across states. While academic content through the Common Core State Standards is a major component, competencies are being seen as the knowledge and skills that can be applied to novel and complex situations (CompetencyWorks, 2012) as that is what is needed to succeed in our increasingly complex society and job market. States are beginning to recognize the importance of having students develop a wide range of skills and abilities that have not traditionally been recognized by policy frameworks and large-scale education systems. There are several names for these skills, but leading thinkers such as David Conley and Tony Wagner describe them as systems navigation and transition skills; key learning skills and techniques, including goal setting, self-regulation, time management, and persistence; and other skills, such as critical thinking, communication, and creativity. States such as New Hampshire, Maine, and Oregon have already included the Common Core State Standards as well as a broader range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions in their vision for college and career readiness. Iowa’s Competency-Based Education Task Force developed guidelines that emphasized deeper learning through the application and creation of knowledge as central educational goals.

Different Paths

Establishing a common end goal does not preclude states from taking different paths to reach that goal. There have been a number of strategies used and the two states featured, Iowa and Oregon, have taken very different approaches to implementing a competency education system. The beginnings of Oregon’s proficiency-based system (a term used by Oregon) grew out of a proficiency-based admissions system for higher education. The system granted admission to any of the state’s seven public baccalaureate granting institutions by replacing the grade point average with proficiencies. While the Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS) was ultimately unsuccessful, practitioners did like elements of the system. Seven pilot districts continued pursuing proficiency-based approaches in the mid-1990s and, almost a decade later, the state then assembled a statewide task force to investigate the future of proficiency-based learning and implications for policy. Then, in 2005, the state adopted a policy allowing all high schools proficiency-based options. This work was supported by the Business Education Compact through district-customized professional development (currently 18% of teachers in Oregon have participated) and state level coordination. As Oregon moves forward, it will be interesting to see how assessment systems evolve. Diane Smith, Oregon Business Education Compact, stated that a proficiency-based system has provided many common assessments, but currently no statewide system is in place. She emphasized that these commonalities have encouraged a professional culture amongst teachers in which they regularly discuss student competencies and instructional and assessment strategies to support them.

Iowa has taken a different approach. The first steps were prompted by interest from the Iowa State Board of Education. Once the board included competency-based education as an agenda priority, a task force was established to create guidelines and recommend next steps. Meanwhile, two school districts were inspired by both state level discussions and a visit to High Tech High in California to develop a project-based and eventually a competency-based system. The original work in Spirit Lake started small, with a waiver to turn their January Term (J-Term) project-based courses into competency-based ones as well. As this work has unfolded, other districts have taken interest in this approach and the state is prioritizing issues such as funding for 10 pilot schools, writing competencies, assessments, professional development, and reporting systems in their ongoing development of a strategic plan. Sandra Dop of the Iowa Department of Education said that while Iowa is still conceptualizing a statewide competency-based system, assessments have been an ongoing conversation—she endorsed Rose Colby’s view of using common scoring guides for uncommon assessments. Rose Colby is a leader in competency-based learning and assessments in New Hampshire, and advocates that, in a personalized environment, assessments can look different based on the individual. Therefore, educators need to develop rubrics that can be used across a variety of contexts. Dop pointed out that Iowa is looking to accommodate unique assessments and that there are necessary shifts within the state’s accountability and data systems to work in such a system. Iowa has been very thoughtful in how the state will continue to partner with those on the ground over the coming years as they continue the work toward building a competency-based system.

View the archived webinar online on the CCRS Center and AYPF websites.

This post is the first part of a four part series.


Andrew Valent is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum. He works on a variety of issues, including afterschool/expanded learning, college and career readiness, and career and technical education and is excited to add competency-based education to the list.