The Intersection

Introducing Competency-Based Education During COVID-19

December 18, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has thoroughly changed the structure of education, highlighting deeply rooted educational inequities and forcing educators to reexamine some of their core practices. As states provide instructional recommendations, students have engaged in a wide array of approaches to remote learning, even while some lack access to technology and the quality tools necessary for online learning, further exacerbating the achievement gap. The pandemic has completely disrupted the education system, as communities witness growing academic and social inequities. Many states have charted their own path for school reopenings; however, the continued reliance on remote learning has heightened the need for flexibility in education and provides an opportunity to implement more personalized learning strategies such as competency-based education (CBE).

As defined by the Measuring Success through Competency-Based Learning Alliance, CBE is: a flexible and engaging learning environment in which progression is based on mastery of explicit learning objectives, or competencies, as demonstrated through evidence of student learning, rather than the time spent in a course/topic.

Source: Malia Krauss, S., Steinberg, A. (2020). Supporting states & districts to implement student- centered and deeper learning practices. JFF. Retrieved from:


Simply, CBE is a new approach that complements a personalized learning experience. This model does not define learning by seat time and students can advance through content at their own pace based on demonstrated mastery of a clearly defined set of measurable competencies.

Below is an example of a CBE Mastery Framework which highlight keys elements for successful CBE implementation:

Source: Regional Educational Laboratory Program. (2020). COVID-19 and competency-based education: Where do we go from here? Institute of Education Sciences.


This CBE framework focuses on equity by “ensuring that all students’ learning needs are met, and the predictability of achievement based on race, income, or other factors are reduced or eliminated.” CBE aims to personalize learning for each student and provides educators the opportunity to meet the unique needs of every child. CBE should provide every student with the support, flexibility, and rigor needed to personalize their learning pathway.

School closures and the shift to online learning have provided schools the opportunity to embrace technology in unprecedented ways by further expanding the process of student learning and mastery of key subjects. As education stakeholders and state leaders remain committed to meeting the needs of their students, some states are implementing personalized CBE, and there is encouragement for more state leaders to do similarly.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, many states have or will forgo conventional state-wide assessments this year. As a result, educators have been granted the freedom to support the unique needs of their students.

Current Examples

As a response to the challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have implemented new models of learning with the values of CBE, to remove seat time as a measure of student learning and allow for flexibility to meet individual student needs.

Vermont: Vermont recently adopted proficiency-based graduation requirements and created flexible pathways for graduation. Students are able to satisfy graduation requirements through work-based learning opportunities, blended-learning, dual enrollment, and early education programs. Further, the state has required the development of a personalized annual plan to fulfill graduation requirements for students in grades 7-12. These adoptions are at the core of CBE and personalized learning.
New Hampshire:  The state has expanded its CBE through the development of the Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE). PACE is a learning system designed to structure learning and assessment opportunities that allow students to gain and demonstrate their knowledge and skills at a depth of understanding that will transfer beyond K-12 education to success in careers and college.
Michigan:  Michigan has implemented various flexible credit options that include waivers from traditional instructional time requirements, alternative education, dual enrollment, and talent development programs. Time-seat waivers provide schools and districts the opportunity to receive waivers for online learning, project-based learning, work-based learning, as well as career and technical education programs that cater to individual student needs.
Utah: The Competency-Based Grants Program in Utah provide planning grants, implementation grants, or expansion grants to incentivize schools to establish CBE through the use of personalized, blended or extended learning, professional learning, or other methods.
Rhode Island:  Rhode Island requires completion of courses (rather than credit) defined as, “a connected series of lessons and learning experiences that: (1) establish expectations defined by recognized standards; (2) provide students with the opportunity to learn and practice skills; and (3) include assessments of student knowledge and skills adequate to determine proficiency at the level of academic rigor required by relevant content standards.”

Policy Considerations

With a disrupted education system, states and districts have an opportunity to rethink the structure of their education system and consider building systems that are flexible, engaging, and equitable during these difficult times. CBE can provide students the opportunity to gain a personalized learning strategy that meets individual student need through an equity lens.

Increase Communication and Engagement: To successfully design and implement CBE, local educator and district support must be present. Considering this, states should work to increase the understanding and dialogue of the benefits of CBE among administrators, educators, parents, and stakeholders. As CBE presents significant differences from traditional education models that may not be understandable to students, parents, and educators, states should promote successful CBE pilot programs to stakeholders.

Support and Communicate Flexibility from Seat-Time Statute or Rule:  Seat time has been the foundation for determining how schools and systems award credit and advance students through grades. These baselines are also often tied to funding and budgeting decisions which make district and education leaders resistant to change. Therefore, state policymakers should consider bringing awareness to these competency-based programs and promote the implementation of flexibility with regard to how annual calendars and daily schedules can be constructed. 

Design or Amend State Assessments to Support CBE: Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity and flexibility to build and transform systems of assessments. States should consider designing a state assessment system that provides students the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and mastery skills of subjects through the inclusion of portfolios, projects, or performance tasks. New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education includes reduced standardized testing with locally developed common performance assessments that support deeper learning.

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