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Is your student 'competent'? A new education yardstick takes the measure.

A new learning regimen requires pupils to show proficiency in 'core competencies' for each subject – with no exceptions. It's called competency-based education. Here's who's trying it and what it entails.

From left, students Ryan Gersbach, Joe Lacroix, and Brianna DeRosier join in a World War I simulation game at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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Grading at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H., is not influenced by some of the more traditional factors, such as turning in homework on time or doing "extra credit." Instead, each class defines a set of about four "competencies" – central concepts and skills – and a student must be proficient in each one to pass. Stellar performance in one can't make up for lack in another.

Students here have multiple opportunities along the way to show teachers what they know: There are quizzes and tests, yes, but also projects, individual portfolios, and class performances.

Spelling out what students need to demonstrate to earn passing or high grades "takes the subjectivity out of it," says Sanborn English teacher Aaron Wiles. A student tripping over one math concept gets pinpointed help, rather than accumulating gaps in understanding and having to take the entire course again. Students reflect on and revise their work until they meet expectations. "They take ownership of it," Mr. Wiles says.

This approach to learning is known as competency-based education, and New Hampshire is among the pioneers. As it gains momentum around the United States, the expectation is that it will deepen learning and tie education more explicitly to skills that will equip students for the workplace and college-level studies – everything from accurate math and writing to creative problem-solving. Competency education can be done in a variety of ways and across all subjects, but it takes a different mind-set than simply marching through a textbook-based curriculum.


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