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1. How does proficiency-based grading and reporting impact students? 2. What are the strengths and challenges of grading and reporting when schools move to proficiency-based assessment and reporting?

May 2017

Following an established REL Northeast & Islands research protocol, we conducted a search for recent research on proficiency-based grading and assessment. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed research about the impact of proficiency-based models on students. The sources searched included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response and we offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Brodersen, R. M., & Randel, B. (2017). Measuring student progress and teachers’ assessment of student knowledge in a competency-based education system (REL 2017–238). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central.
    From the abstract: “This report examines the academic progress of elementary and middle school students enrolled in competency-based education in one Colorado district. In competency-based education, students are promoted to the next performance level once their teacher determines that they have demonstrated mastery of all the learning targets for a course. The study found that:
    • A majority of students completed their math and reading performance levels in approximately one academic year, but 43–47 percent of the students who were behind their traditional grade levels completed their performance levels in three or fewer quarters, less time than it would take in a traditional education system.
    • Teachers’ assessments of student competencies were only weakly related to student math and reading achievement on the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the state’s standardized test..”
  2. Steele, J., Lewis, M., Santibanez, L., Faxon-Mills, S., Rudnick, M., Stecher, B., & Hamilton, L. (2014). Competency-Based Education in Three Pilot Programs: Examining Implementation and Outcomes. Washington DC: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from
    From the abstract: “Proficiency-based or competency-based approaches to education are undergoing a resurgence in both K-12 and higher education settings, spurred in part by advances in digital learning technologies. These approaches allow students to progress at their own pace through a diverse range of personalized learning experiences aligned to students' interests. In a proficiency-based system, students receive credit not as a function of how much time they spend studying a subject but, rather, based on demonstrations and assessments of their learning. This study focuses on three distinct approaches to proficiency-based education. It attempts to extend the research base by describing the implementation of three diverse technology-enabled models and by providing evidence about students' experiences and learning outcomes under each model. The study examines proficiency-based pathways implementation in five settings. To obtain a quasiexperimental estimate of the pilot interventions' effects on student performance in the targeted subject areas, the authors adopt a distinct approach for each site to reflect the differing scope of implementation across sites. This study highlights the role of instructional technology in facilitating proficiency-based educational approaches--both the ways in which technology is transformative and the ways in which it may be useful but less essential. It also lays bare some of the challenges in bringing proficiency-based models to scale. Though the analyses of students' outcomes are still under way, the quasiexperimental analytic results will provide new evidence on the near-term effects of proficiency-based approaches and pave the way for studies designed to yield more-robust causal inferences.”
  3. Brodersen, R. M., Yanoski, D., Mason, K., Apthorp, H., and Piscatelli, J. (2016). Overview of selected state policies and supports related to K–12 competency-based education (REL 2017–249). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central.
    From the abstract: “Many states, including those in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Central Region, have revised or are considering revising their policies to align more with competency-based education and other innovative education practices (National Governors Association, 2012). Education leaders in the REL Central Region are interested in learning about policies that affect implementation of competency-based education by understanding policies already in place in their state and learning about the policies of states further ahead in implementation. To help meet this need, this report summarizes the laws and regulations of the seven states in the REL Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming), as well as the policies of five states outside the region identified as being advanced in aligning their policies to support competency-based education (Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon). This scan of state policies also categorizes the different types of supports these 12 states have provided to intentionally support competency-based education. State and district policymakers can use the information in this report to increase their understanding of the current laws and regulations in their state that may facilitate or hinder competency-based education and to learn about the policies and resources that other states have to support this education approach.”
  4. Marion, S., & Leather, P. (2015). Assessment and accountability to support meaningful learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23(9).
    From the abstract: “This paper presents an overview of New Hampshire's efforts to implement a pilot accountability system designed to support deeper learning for students and powerful organization change for schools and districts. The accountability pilot, referred to as Performance Assessment of Competency Education or PACE, is grounded in a competency based educational approach designed to ensure that students have meaningful opportunities to achieve critical knowledge and skills. These opportunities are judged by the outcomes students achieve and not by inputs such as seat time. Therefore, students must achieve these competencies before moving on to the next major learning targets and/or graduating from high school. High quality performance assessments play a crucial role in the PACE system because of the need to have assessments that measure the depths of student understanding of these complex learning targets. Performance assessments are used as both summative and interim measures in the PACE system as a way to document student learning of the competencies and to support remediation or extension interventions. The paper describes the system of assessments being implemented as part of the PACE pilot as well as providing a discussion of the technical quality issues the state is working to address as part of this accountability pilot. For example, being able to produce valid and comparable annual determinations for all students each year is a considerable technical challenge as well as documenting the degree to which all students are held to the same threshold expectations (equity). The paper concludes by relating the PACE initiative to the push for deeper and more meaningful learning for students.”
  5. Freeland, J. (2014). From Policy to Practice: How Competency-Based Education is Evolving in New Hampshire. Lexington: MA: Clayton Christensen Institute.
    From the abstract: “In 2005, New Hampshire abolished the Carnegie unit--the core unit around which schools typically measure credit hours. In its place, the state mandated that all high schools measure credit according to students' mastery of material, rather than time spent in class. This policy shift created the first-ever state-wide effort to create a competency-based education system. Under the new 2005 regulations, New Hampshire districts were required to create competencies and begin measuring credit in these terms by the start of the 2008-09 school year. Because local control rules the day in the "live free or die" state, New Hampshire's districts and charter schools were free to interpret and implement this mandate as they saw fit. The 13 schools profiled in this paper each demonstrate a distinct approach to competency-based education in their local context. Some schools invested deeply in building competency-based models by creating opportunities for students to move at a flexible, personalized pace; providing supplemental content for students who had fallen behind or wanted to move ahead; and making assessment more frequent and formative, with a focus on demonstrating mastery in real-world examples and settings. Other schools, however, have remained tethered to time-based practices, such as bell schedules, end-of-unit assessments, and fixed whole class pacing. Although teachers and administrators at these schools have articulated school-wide competencies, these competencies may not guide curriculum and instruction across all subjects. Students still move through material as a class and therefore still stand to accumulate the gaps in their learning that competency-based models are designed to prevent. New Hampshire's example demonstrates both the power and limitations of statewide competency-based education policy, particularly in a setting with a strong tradition of local control. The lessons from 13 schools across the state suggest that adopting competency-based approaches is not a quick or easy process, and that it requires new infrastructure, new approaches to teaching and learning, and new tools to deliver content and assess work to allow each student to progress upon mastery. Appended are: (1) Notable reports and books on New Hampshire's competency-based policymaking as well as on various implementation models in New Hampshire and beyond; and (2) Timeline of key New Hampshire policy initiatives.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

Proficiency-based grading

Proficiency-based assessment

Competency-based grading

Competency-based assessment

Databases and Resources

We searched WWC, ERIC and NCEE for relevant resources. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.

Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including WWC, ERIC, and NCEE.

Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Northeast & Islands Region (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, US Virgin Islands, and Vermont), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands at Education Development Center. This memorandum was prepared by REL Northeast & Islands under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0008, administered by Education Development Center. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.