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Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands

The purpose of this study was to examine how competency-based learning (CBL) is defined across states in the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands region and gain insight into barriers and facilitators to implementation of this reform. Many states in the region have started to consider and implement competency-based learning as a secondary school reform to increase graduation rates and ensure that students have the skills and knowledge for postsecondary success. Under competency-based approaches, students demonstrate mastery of a defined set of standards or competencies to earn credit toward graduation rather than completing credit requirements based on time spent in class. To master the learning standards or competencies, students are given support and additional time as needed. A review of state-level policies in each of the seven states in the region was conducted along with interviews with a sample of 20 administrators in three states (6 state-level administrators, 11 district-level administrators, and 3 school-level administrators) to gain an understanding of the range of state- and district-level policies in the region on this reform and the perceived barriers and facilitators for implementing competency-based learning. Interviews were conducted with nine administrators from Maine, four from Massachusetts, and seven from Rhode Island. Findings indicate that there was no common definition of competency-based learning in state and district policies or in interviews with administrators; however, researchers identified common elements of the reform (e.g., students must demonstrate mastery of all required proficiencies or competencies to earn credit; students advance once they have demonstrated mastery; students are assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery; students can earn credit toward graduation through multiple means rather than just through course taking). Results also revealed that developing the competencies involved aligning the curriculum, instruction, and assessments to the competencies. Needed supports included communication strategies, ongoing teacher support and time for collaboration, and access to more research and models on this reform. The findings from this study demonstrate that a lack of a consistent, common definition of competency-based learning that outlines the major elements of this reform leads to a broad range of practices. Education leaders at the state, district, and school levels must work together to establish a shared understanding of competency-based learning and support schools as they find ways to implement this reform so that competency-based learning will meet intended goals of increasing graduation rates and ensuring college and career readiness. Six appendices include: (1) Review of the Literature; (2) Data and Methods; (3) Telephone Interview Protocols; (4) State Laws and Policies Related to Graduation Requirements and Competency-Based Learning; (5) District or School Policies Related to Competency-Based Learning in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island; and (6) Sample District and School Characteristics. [This report was written in collaboration with the Northeast College and Career Readiness Research Alliance.]

Descriptors: Competency Based Education, Definitions, Educational Policy, Program Implementation, Educational Change, Barriers, Secondary Education, Mastery Learning, Academic Standards, State Policy, Alignment (Education), Educational Practices, College Readiness, Career Readiness, Graduation Requirements

Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Available from: Education Development Center, Inc. 43 Foundry Avenue, Waltham, MA 02453. Tel: 617-969-7100; e-mail: relneiinfo[at]; Web site:

Autor: Torres, Aubrey Scheopner; Brett, Jessica; Cox, Joshua


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