Shift Away from ‘Seat Time’ on Display in States

By Sean Cavanagh — February 03, 2012 2 min read
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Thirty-six states have established policies that give districts and schools some degree of ability to award credits to students based on mastery of a subject, rather than “seat time,” a new report says.

At the same time, the issue brief, released by the National Governors Association, reveals the diversity of approaches taken by state lawmakers as they try to create more flexiblity for students through virtual and other alternative options to traditional classroom instruction.

Some states require high schools to allow students to earn credits based on mastery—which could include showing portfolios of work, projects, or the completion of a tests.

Other states allow students to receive individual waivers from seat-time requirements on a case-by-case basis.

New Hampshire has taken what is probably the farthest-reaching steps away from seat time. The state requires all public high schools to base credit attainment on student mastery, rather than seat time, NGA explains. That means students can earn credits through expanded-learning opportunities, community service, and other means, including online options.

Why are states trying to create this flexiblity? In some cases, they’re interested in helping students who’ve fallen behind, or who don’t do well in traditional academic settings, catch up on credit through online courses or other means. Sometimes they want to offer greater flexibility to students who want to move more quickly. Or they want to help students who are otherwise prevented from taking a course they want by their schedules, or limits on what their schools offer.

The report also notes that there are state policies that prevent moving away from seat-time requirements. States typically use student “enrollment counts,” based on the number of students in a classroom for the whole school day. That means students taking part in virtual courses or other classes outside of the classroom may not count, resulting in schools receiving less per-pupil funding.

NGA argues that states and college systems can also do more to ensure that higher education institutions accept student transcripts with credits demonstrated by mastery.

Critics of virtual education—and there are many—have said that it is growing too quickly, with few safeguards to ensure quality. But judging from the wave of state activity, governors and lawmakers are keen on providing students and schools with more flexibility in how they acquire knowledge—and how they pick up academic credit.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.