3 Ways CBE Supports At-Risk Youth

aypf logo formattedHigh school graduation rates in this country are at an all-time high. However, too many youth, approximately 2.6 million between 16 and 24 years of age, remain off track for graduating from high school. These youth may or may not be enrolled in high school, or they may have dropped out or are at-risk of dropping out because they are falling behind or becoming disengaged in their learning. These students may experience homelessness, be pregnant or parenting, have involvement in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, or face a host of other barriers to success in adulthood.

These youth are known as overage and under-credited (OA/UC) students, meaning they lack the appropriate number of high school credits for their age or intended grade cohort. How can we ensure these youth who are overage and behind in credit hours not only graduate high school, but are prepared for college and the workforce?


As we document in this brief, competency-based education (CBE) is one educational strategy to be leveraged to support OA/UC students’ success. I stress ‘one’ because there are a host of other practices, policies, and reform strategies helpful to ensuring these young people succeed. However, CBE, as an educational model, shows promise in supporting OA/UC students get on track for graduation and ready for life’s next steps.

At its core, CBE is a student-centered strategy to teaching, learning, and academic reporting. It prioritizes the elements of mastery, pacing, and personalized instruction to prepare students for postsecondary education, work, and civic life. In schools practicing these elements, instruction is personalized to meet students’ diverse needs. Students progress at their own pace to the next level or grade once they demonstrate mastery of certain content knowledge and/or skills. Mastery is determined through meaningful and differentiated assessment rather than time spent in the classroom combined with a passing course grade.

CBE is particularly helpful for OA/UC students for three reasons:

1.Personalized, self-paced teaching and learning can increase the likelihood of graduation by providing an alternative to repeating full courses.

2. Demonstrating mastery of specific content knowledge and skills necessary for successful transition to postsecondary education and work can help students move to the next level or grade more quickly.

3. Personalized learning objectives and formative assessments address potential issues related to student connectedness and motivation towards school.

This idea of using CBE to support OA/UC students is not new. In fact, a number of schools and programs around the country are already using elements of CBE to support OA/UC students, including: Academic Performance Excellence Academy, Boston Day and Evening Academy, Good Shepard Services, Our Piece of the Pie, YouthBuild Charter School of California, and many others.

CBE quoteThese and other schools use various aspects of CBE to help OA/UC student succeed. Many of them forego using Carnegie units or traditional grades and allow students to progress when they have demonstrated mastery, and some schools allow students to graduate in three, four, or five years. Many schools run on a year-round, full-day calendar and accept students at any time during the year, adjusting the curriculum to their academic needs, sometimes with the use of blended learning or technology. CBE also allows for small, personalized learning environments, that allow the instructors to tailor the curriculum in ways that engage students in project-based or career-related learning or that address individual learning deficits. Finally, schools allow students to demonstrate mastery through the development of portfolios of work, performances, videos, presentations, and displays of written work and projects, all showing the accumulation of knowledge over time rather than relying on end-of-course standardized tests.

With its flexible and personalized approach, CBE is one educational strategy that can help prepare at-risk youth for college and careers. For more information, see our Ask the CCRS Center brief State Policies to Support Competency-Based Education for Overage, Under-Credited Students that highlights state policies and local examples that utilize elements of CBE to help OA/UC students succeed, and provides recommendations for how states can develop and implement supportive policies for these youth.

This post was co-authored by Jenna Tomasello, Policy Associate, and Betsy Brand, Executive Director.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.