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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.

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After a pilot program that started in 1997, all of New Hampshire's public high schools were required to tie graduation to competency assessments by 2008-09. Similar work is under way in Grades K through 8. The state is starting to harvest the fruits of this shift. Although it's difficult to isolate the effects of competency-based education from other policies, state officials say dropout rates have declined and graduation rates have increased at higher rates in schools that were early to embrace the competency approach.

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Schools such as Sanborn Regional High report lower levels of class failure and discipline problems than previously experienced. The number of courses that its freshmen failed, for instance, was 72 in 2010-11 – the year just before full implementation of the school's competency system – and dropped to 26 in 2012-13.

Another measure of results: Among 165 Expeditionary Learning Schools around the US, a network that incorporates a competency approach, students reach proficiency on standardized reading tests at a rate that is 11 to 12 percentage points higher than that of their district peers. In math, their scores are eight to nine points higher.

Because competency-based systems haven't been implemented or studied on a large scale, only time will tell how well students taught that way fare in college or careers compared with their peers. But more states are moving to adopt the approach, including Oregon, Maine, Kentucky, Arizona, and Iowa.

Moreover, when individual school districts competed for a recent round of Race to the Top grants from the federal government, 75 percent of the winners included competency-based elements in their plans, according to KnowledgeWorks, an education nonprofit group that supports competency-based reforms.

A peek at how it works in practice

In Sanborn High's freshman Global Studies classes, a role-playing exercise gives students a chance to build on several of the class competencies, such as understanding the role of conflict and cooperation among individuals and governments and applying knowledge of geography.

For the unit on World War I, before students have a single lecture or reading assignment, they experience the tangled alliances that helped spark the war. During a June class, teachers Brian Gray and Mark Giuliucci divvy up their students into teams representing six fictional countries on a map resembling the Balkan Peninsula. The countries can make four types of alliances: nonaggression, right of passage, mutual defense, or mutual support. The last one is "where you literally will go to war with them if they go to war.... You are like BFFs," Mr. Gray tells them.

Students have already created flags and anthems. Now they are scurrying around, seeking beneficial treaties with each other and strategizing in secret hallway meetings.

A few minutes into the exercise and Brianna DeRosier, secretary of state for Yorkton, exclaims: "This is so stressful!" One country won't forge a sought-after alliance, so she must shift gears. By the end of the class period, the ponytailed teenager wearing a zebra-stripe belt has already gotten a better grasp on conflict.

"I didn't really know what caused wars," Brianna says. "I knew it was conflict, but I didn't really understand why – I was like, why can't everybody just get along? But now I understand that there are other parts to it, with the allies, and sneaking around each other's back."

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