Measuring Mastery, Not Seat Time: Here’s How Schools Can Make It Work

All states now allow competency-based learning in some form. A new report gives schools tools to implement it
By Libby Stanford — June 29, 2023 6 min read
Icons of competency skills.
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Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that the International Big Picture Learning Credential was developed by Big Picture Learning Australia with the help of researchers from the University of Melbourne.

Schools across the globe are rethinking the traditional high school diploma and transcript, opting for a model that shows students have done more than earn passing grades and put in the requisite amount of seat time, and instead actually mastered critical skills.

It’s part of a move to change how schools measure student learning by abandoning the traditional course credit and seat time model in favor of one that promotes and graduates students when they’ve demonstrated mastery of subject matter. The model is often called competency-based learning, and it’s slowly caught on in pockets around the United States. Every state now allows competency-based learning in some form.

In a new report, the Aurora Institute, a think tank that studies competency-based learning, details how state and local school systems can go about adopting competency learning with lessons from Australia, New Zealand, Vermont, and Utah, all of which have begun using “learner records” and “next generation credentials” that show a student’s competencies, skills, credentials, and interests rather than just their GPA.

In April, Wyoming became the final state in the country to embrace competency learning in some capacity when the state’s school board, education department, flagship public university, and governor agreed to start a pilot project through which a handful of districts will shift from measuring student learning based on letter grades and course credits to measuring it based on students’ demonstrated mastery of the required subject areas.

Wyoming’s program is an example of an overarching movement toward “student-centered” learning, through which policymakers on both sides of the political aisle are supporting programs like career and technical education, work-based learning, and competency-based learning.

But state and local schools still have far to go before competency-based learning becomes the standard for measuring student success, said Laurie Gagnon, program director for the Aurora Institute’s CompetencyWorks initiative. Looking at examples of statewide and international school systems that have successfully adopted the model can help schools get there, she said.

“There are lots of different ways to enact competency-based methods,” Gagnon said. “Part of it is really deciding on the local level, how are we going to do this well for our students?”

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Saying goodbye to the traditional transcript

The report, released earlier this month, explains how schools can measure student learning through a “learner record” and “next-generation credentials” rather than a traditional report card or transcript.

The institute defines next-generation credentials as diplomas and certificates that capture whether a student has demonstrated proficiency in a set of competencies, rather than accrued a required number of credits. Those credentials should be communicated through a learner record, the report said.

While it can take a number of different forms, the learner record is typically a digital file that demonstrates what a student has learned in real time, awarding them credentials for mastering subjects and aligning information to the state’s academic standards and graduation requirements.

The learner record awards students badges and micro-credentials that show they have skills beyond the core subjects. For example, students participating in STEM programs can earn a badge for mastering skills in biotech or engineering.

The idea is to provide students with a personalized learning plan that communicates progress and next steps for students, their families, teachers, and advisers.

It also gives employers and college admissions directors a better sense of the student, their interests, their skills, their personality, and their goals, according to the report.

“Instead of just a list of courses with grades that don’t really tell you what the learner learned and is able to do going forward, it’s designed around learning goals, and we’re reporting on what students have actually learned,” Gagnon said.

The learner record also serves as an opportunity for students to get ongoing feedback on their progress with more specific information than the letter grades in a report card, Gagnon said.

“A learner record can also be useful in the actual learning process along the way,” she said. “So it’s used by the learner and by teachers and families to say, ‘here’s where I’m at, here’s what I have demonstrated, and here’s where I’m going next.’”

Aurora Institute: Common competency goals: portfolio, internships, courses, bio, achievements.

Examples from across the globe

The Aurora Institute report highlighted a few examples of state and international school systems that have successfully implemented the credentials and learner record model.

Big Picture Learning Australia, an education nonprofit dedicated to advancing education to keep up with changes in technology, worked with researchers at the University of Melbourne to develop the International Big Picture Learning Credential, which records knowledge, skills, competencies, and achievements while also highlighting students’ goals and ambitions. Through the credential, students build a learner record, also called a “learner profile,” that functions similarly to a resume.

There are lots of different ways to enact competency-based methods. Part of it is really deciding on the local level, how are we going to do this well for our students?

It shows a student’s headshot and links to an online portfolio with videos and examples of student work. It also shows a graph, resembling a flower, that demonstrates a student’s level of development on different learning goals, such as knowing how to learn, social reasoning, communication, quantitative reasoning, personal qualities, and empirical reasoning.

Students who use the credential are given a Big Picture Learning Plan, which was developed at the Met School in Providence, R.I. The plan is individualized with goals and objectives created at the start of each term with the help of teachers, family members, mentors, and community members, the report said.

In this country, Vermont has led the way in developing a proficiency-based graduation system. School districts use the state education department’s proficiency-based graduation requirements to allow students to progress based on their mastery of required skills. The requirements are developed from the state’s profile of a graduate, which spells out what the state thinks students should achieve before they leave high school.

The state policy has school districts develop personalized learning plans, written documents that describe “the scope and rigor of learning opportunities and support services necessary for the student to achieve college and career readiness,” according to the report. The state also has schools provide flexible pathways to arrive at that point of readiness, allowing students to participate in career and technical education, virtual learning, work-based learning, and personalized instructional practices, through which teachers align classroom instruction to students’ specific needs.

The examples show that school systems have been able to successfully change learning so that it’s more personalized to the student, Gagnon said. They also can be replicated elsewhere to help districts and state school systems avoid messy transitions.

“The key message is that this is possible,” Gagnon said. “And if we think about what we really want for our learners and the purpose of education, it’s the right thing to do.”

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Students in the auto technology class work on a vehicle at the Regional Occupational Center.
Students work on a vehicle in an auto technology class at the Regional Occupational Center in Bakersfield, Calif.
Morgan Lieberman for Education Week


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