American schools typically organize students by age, However, with the pandemic, more students were learning from home. So emphasis shifted by necessity to more personalized learning. Under normal conditions, pupils generally travel from grade to grade with the same cohort, despite different ability levels. Classes tend to be heterogeneous and emphasize whole-group learning, so students in the same class may have radically different capabilities even though they pass to the next grade together. This traditional student grouping, by necessity focuses on the students whose abilities are clustered in the middle. Neither the more capable, or less capable students are well served. 

Some educators are proposing a different, personalized  structure: Competency-based education (CBE).This educational philosophy  is based on mastery.  It offers more personalized learning than whole group instruction. The idea is that students are provided learning objectives that they must master in order to demonstrate proficiency.  According to the US Department of Education, CBE  provides “ A structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.”   The benefits of CBE include “better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student. And it can take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls.” 

Proponents of CBE maintain that  because it enhances student engagement, it also promotes a growth mindset and intrinsic motivation.  Various strategies exist to achieve such personalization.  These  include “online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others.”

In short, students who master a particular objective move on to the next topic regardless of age. For example, Common Core objectives for seventh grade math include ratios.  Students who demonstrate proficiency on this topic can move onto the next, proportional relationships whether they are in elementary, middle, or high school. 

Admittedly, transitioning from the traditional grade levels is quite challenging. As of 2017 most states were at some stage of developing or implementing CBE.  

  • 10 were at an advanced stage 
  • 14 were at the development stage
  • 24 were listed as an emerging stage
  • Only 2 had no plans yet in place. 

“Most states have something on the books to encourage competency-based options, but only about a half-dozen have loosened seat-time dictates enough to dispense with grade levels.”

The US Department of Education outlines the plans for three states that use learning levels rather than grade levels:

  • New Hampshire-replacement of timed-based units with personalized learning 
  • Michigan- a seat time waiver  for students “to access online learning options and the opportunity to continue working on a high school diploma or grade progression without actually attending a school facility.”
  • Ohio-demonstration of “subject area competency, completing classroom instruction, or a combination of the two.”

Some options for implementing CBE include multiple age classes  and reworking teacher assignments. For example, instead of being generalists, elementary teachers start  to specialize.To familiarize parents with the new reporting system schools can add a grade-level scale across the top of report cards that mostly measures student progress along broader “learning continuums.”

Although so many variations currently seem to be in place, it is clear that personalized learning will be a factor in education. 


Laura Maniglia