Every State Now Lets Schools Measure Students’ Success Based on Mastery, Not Seat Time

by Libby Stanford published on May 31, 2023 by Education Week:

Wyoming students may soon see the end of their school system as they know it.

In April, the state’s board of education, education department, flagship public university, and governor agreed to start a pilot project through which a handful of districts this fall will begin abandoning the traditional model of letter grades and course credits in favor of promoting—and graduating—students once they’ve demonstrated mastery of the required subjects.

The switch to a system called competency-based learning gives those districts a chance to try out evaluating students based on their mastery of subjects rather than whether they’ve put in a set amount of seat time in the classroom.

With the pilot project, Wyoming has become the final state to allow competency-based learning in some form, marking a historic point in a growing, albeit slow, movement in favor of a model that emphasizes students’ achievement rather than the set 13-year academic schedule. That movement—long championed by many high-profile education leaders—has seen a handful of states embrace competency-based education faster than others and uneven progress within those states.

In Wyoming, it’s part of a three-pronged effort to move the state toward what State Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder calls “student-centered learning,” which is heavier on personalized and project-based learning that emphasize the development of problem-solving skills and letting students test-drive different career pathways.

The state superintendent, who was elected last November, has a private-sector background in the coal, oil, and gas industries. That experience showed her that many students weren’t prepared for life outside of the classroom, she said.

And after talking to people during her campaign for superintendent, “it became more and more clear that the people of Wyoming wanted something different in their education system with this greater focus on job preparation and competency of skills,” Degenfelder said. “To me, we really get there when we provide greater choice and individualized learning opportunities for all students, and we simply can’t afford to continue with this really one-size-fits-all model in education.”

Advocates say the competency-based model—which has also been called proficiency- and mastery-based education—is more personalized, gives students room to grow in their learning, and ensures that graduates are prepared for the challenges and opportunities they’ll encounter in the adult world.

But it’s a transition that requires a wholesale shift in school culture, school structures, and teacher pedagogy, according to the Aurora Institute, a think tank that studies competency-based learning, and many states still have room to grow in developing policies that allow for competency education.

Despite the slow growth, however, the past decade has been pivotal, according to the think tank. In 2012, 22 states lacked any policy addressing competency-based learning. About a decade later, they have all made at least some move to adopt the model.

By the Aurora Institute’s definition, competency-based education allows students to make key decisions about their own learning and progress at their own pace; is tailored to individual students’ needs and learning styles; relies on assessments that are meaningful and deliver timely, actionable results; and is based on common and clear expectations.

The model allows for more personalization, flexible time, equitable instruction, and group work skills, said Susan Patrick, the Aurora Institute’s president and CEO.

“It really is equity-driven,” she said. “If you are ensuring that every student gets to mastery, you’re addressing these gaps that are taking place and the holes in learning that are deeply impacting students, especially our most underserved and our most vulnerable students.”

A change 100 years in the making

In 1906, the Carnegie Foundation, an education policy and research center, developed the Carnegie unit, the system that measures how much time students must spend in class to complete a course. It was exclusively based on seat time, and the foundation determined that 14 units would translate into four years of high school education.

Last year, however, the foundation announced an initiative that seeks to replace the unit with a more modern measure of student achievement, which could include mastery of subjects.

“Seat time is universally used as a definition for how you earn a Carnegie unit or a credit in high school because it’s easy,” Patrick said. “A hundred years later, we’re finally going to get the Carnegie Foundation to support that shift, too.”