How competency-based education creates choice and confidence

Students in this North Dakota school district get to decide when they’re ready for assessments
By: | April 6, 2020
Competency-based learning in the Northern Cass School District guiding educators in mapping out proficiencies that learners must demonstrate before progressing.Competency-based learning in the Northern Cass School District guiding educators in mapping out proficiencies that learners must demonstrate before progressing.

Competency-based education relies on students having some freedom over how they demonstrate learning.

That’s because this kind of freedom is a crucial life skill, says Cory Steiner, superintendent of Northern Cass School District 97 in North Dakota.

“We expect kids to be choice-ready when they leave our buildings yet we never let them make any choices while they’re in our buildings,” says Steiner, whose district has eliminated letter grades during its three-year transition to competency-based education in all grades. “Now, we hear kids saying, “For once you’ve allowed me to make a choice, and look what I can do!’”

For instance, students in Northern Cass get to decide when they’re ready for assessments. In an ELA course, that could take the form of a video about a novel.


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Educators revamped the curriculum by prioritizing state standards in each content area and mapping out proficiencies that learners must demonstrate before progressing. The district houses the standards—and the resources to teach them—in its learning management system.

Learners spend most of their time in small groups that are rearranged every few weeks as students reach different points in their learning.

The district is also finding ways to give students credits for work done outside the classroom. For instance, students who went on a dinosaur dig got physical education credits for the long hikes they took each day.

“Nobody talks in terms of ‘we’re doing chapter four’ because we very seldom have textbooks anymore,” Steiner says. “And you won’t see seminars because whole-group instruction assumes every learner is at the same place.”


Read our more stories in our competency-based education series.