New Hampshire is the first state to change its education policies to credit high school students — and soon elementary and middle school students, too — for progressing based on what they’ve mastered, not the number of hours they spend in school. Known as a competency-based system, the idea is to define the core skills and concepts students should master and only move them forward once they’ve achieved mastery of every competency rather than their “seat time.”
In traditional schools, students progress if their average grade is high enough, which may leave room for holes in their understanding of concepts they’ll need in future classes. In the most alternative application of a competency-based system, age-based grade levels would disappear and students would move through concepts at their own pace, regardless of age or grade.
Advancing students based on their mastery of subjects is now the state policy of New Hampshire, but a long history of local control over education means the policy is being implemented very differently in every school district. “Local government, whether at the town, city or county level, takes a state mandate and interprets it locally,” said Julia Freeland, research fellow at the Christensen Institute and author of From Policy to Practice: How Competency Based Education is Evolving in New Hampshire. “It creates an interesting dynamic in terms of uniformity across the state.”
Some New Hampshire schools were already reorganizing school instruction, schedules and expectations around teaching competencies before the state passed its policy in 2005. Those schools — often charters or alternative schools — had a big jump start over traditional comprehensive high schools that had been operating the same way for more than 100 years. A few of those traditional schools embraced the move to competency-based education as a way to improve struggling performance. Others found ways to design their competencies to fit in with what they were already doing. Those schools still look very traditional.
“What we saw really lacking was the core concept that students would be advancing upon mastery,” Freeland said. “If they truly were moving by mastery they would have flexible pacing.” Schools that stay on the semester system, divided by subject area and age, and assigning grades on a 100-point scale aren’t embracing the spirit of the state’s move to a competency-based system. “There are schools calling what they’re doing competency-based but aren’t really allowing for flexible pacing,” Freeland said.