School & District Management

Competency-Based Learning: A Dropout Prevention Strategy?

By Catherine Gewertz — January 19, 2017 2 min read

Do high schools use competency-based education—judging student progress by mastery, not seat time—as a dropout prevention strategy?

The answer, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education, is yes. The department found that one-third of high schools offer competency-based flexibility to students.

Funded as part of the department’s High School Graduation Initiative, the survey asked principals in 2,142 high schools about their use of 13 improvement strategies for the 2014-15 school year. The exploration of competency-based advancement is one of five briefs released from that survey. The others explore early-warning systems, mentoring, career-themed curricula, and student support teams.

Keep in mind as you read the brief that the education department wasn’t studying whether competency-based advancement worked as a dropout strategy. It was only asking principals if it was one of the tactics they were using to help struggling students graduate. It defines “competency-based advancement” as letting students move ahead when they show mastery through projects, portfolios, or performance assessments, or through tests given whenever they’re ready.

It’s probably not too surprising that the survey showed competency-based advancement is more prevalent in high-poverty, urban schools with low graduation rates than it is in more affluent, suburban schools. One possible explanation for this is the expansion of credit-recovery programs, typically computer-based catch-up programs that students can complete at their own pace.

But the survey also found that schools are about as likely to offer competency-based advancement to students who are exceeding academic expectations as they are to offer it to those who are struggling. Schools targeted those groups of students for competency-based advancement much more often than they did for English learners or students re-entering school.

How did schools using competency-based advancement decide when students had mastered the material and were ready to move on? The survey found that traditional measures such as an end-of-course exam or course completion dominated such decisions. At first blush, that sounds like an old-fashioned seat-time-based approach; but it could be that schools deemed these tactics “competency-based” because they were allowing students to finish courses and take tests whenever they were ready, not only at the end of a semester or school year.

The survey also shows that some kinds of schools are using the less-standardized, less-traditional forms of competency-based advancement more than others. More urban schools, for instance, reported basing advancement on student portfolios than did suburban or rural schools.

Even though one-third of schools offered competency-based advancement, only 11 percent of students actually participated, the principals in the survey estimated.

Image by Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.