ESSA and Expanded Opportunities for Competency-based Learning

George Knowles, Digital Communications Associate

This post is part two in our Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) blog series.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are allowed a new measure of flexibility around student testing and accountability. For advocates of competency-based learning, this is good news.

States like New Hampshire were able to get a jumpstart on this autonomy with their Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) program, which features cross-district assessments that require critical thinking and applying classroom knowledge to real-world scenarios.

“ESSA has pushed the conversation around how states can promote competency-based learning through additional flexibility in assessment and accountability,” said Andrew Valent, an independent education consultant.

Using competency-based learning with regard to student assessment is a natural fit. The model is centered on the demonstration of student mastery, where students are required to demonstrate deep subject matter knowledge and apply classroom concepts to real-world situations. Competency-based assessment could offer new insights into student learning with substance and nuance, and more closely resemble postsecondary and career settings, which require sharp critical thinking skills.

In addition to states’ new abilities to develop systems with federal guidance, pilot programs have the potential for even further experimentation. ESSA also allows for seven states to implement their own pilot assessment and accountability programs over a three-year period, which could provide room for more competency-based learning innovation in the classroom. School leaders would be free to accelerate, modify, or add to existing competency-based models, provided that the program has plans to move to a statewide model in the future.

While New Hampshire’s PACE program is the first statewide effort to redesign their assessment system, other states have explored similar territory in incorporating competency-based learning systems. Michigan has provided a seat-time waiver for students who wish to explore online learning, and Ohio offers a credit flexibility option for students to design individual learning plans that are custom-tailored for the individual learner.

This is an exciting time for competency-based learning advocates, particularly for those who are eager to move away from standardized tests, rote memorization, or multiple choice as measures of student progress. While the new regulations surround assessment and accountability are incremental (for now), competency-based, personalized learning may become more widespread in the future.

George Knowles is the Digital Communications Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.













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.