State Boards Test the Waters on Competency-Based Education

By Grace Hill

Competency-based education (CBE), in which students demonstrate mastery of subject matter before advancing, is popping up in legislation and on state board agendas. One CBE-related bill in Florida was enacted in 2016, two were enacted in 2017 (in Utah and Virginia), and five are pending in Oregon and Virginia, according to a June report from the Education Commission of the States. From January through June 2017, seven state boards of education discussed or acted on CBE initiatives, according to State Board Insight data. Many of their states have established or are planning pilot programs to test competency-based instructional techniques at a few schools before scaling up.

Originally targeted at postsecondary education, CBE has been gaining traction in public high schools as a means of enhancing college and career readiness. Sometimes called personalized learning or mastery-based learning, CBE requires that teachers provide differentiated instruction so that all children are learning even as they progress at different paces.

New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) is likely the most well known CBE pilot and has advanced furthest toward statewide implementation. Carla Evans, a University of New Hampshire doctoral student, presented preliminary results of her evaluation of the pilot to the New Hampshire State Board of Education in April. She found a positive effect on eighth grade math scores during schools’ second year in the pilot. Notably, students with disabilities who attended PACE schools did substantially better than students with disabilities in non-PACE schools.

Other states are following New Hampshire’s lead. The Illinois State Board of Education heard a report in May on the development of a high school graduation requirements pilot program. Ten districts were selected in April to participate, and an evaluation and recommendations for future programs will be completed during the 2021–22 school year. All districts with pilot schools have created committees to plan and implement the programs and will engage stakeholders throughout the process.

Ohio has also created a pilot program, with five districts or consortia participating from 2016–17 through 2018–19. These groups will also participate in a statewide workgroup to increase knowledge of effective CBE strategies and develop resources for use in other districts and schools. Participating schools and districts must meet all accountability requirements, although they receive state funding based on children enrolled rather than the full-time equivalent calculation required for other schools.

Grace Hill interned with NASBE during summer 2017.