Trends in Seat-Time vs. Competency-Based Policy

The traditional model of credit accumulation adopted by states across the United States is based upon a seat-time requirement known as the Carnegie Unit. Using this model, students must be seated in a class for specific number of hours in order to receive credit for the course. This is true for all students, regardless of prior knowledge, skills, or experiences, and has been the primary means of credit accrual in the United States since the early 20th century. However, it does not facilitate real-time data on student progress, and creates artificial barriers to completion for non-traditional students, disconnected youth, students with disabilities, and accelerated learners.

In contrast, a credit policy based upon competency-based education requires rethinking the time-based system of accountability and assessment in favor of robust student-centered approaches. It provides data on students meeting competencies in real-time to improve accountability, new systems of assessments, and is centered on improving student learning outcomes. This approach allows for stronger personalization and student-centered learning, including ensuring all students succeed in building college and career readiness; taking advantage of the extraordinary technological advances in online learning; allowing students to learn at their own pace, any time and everywhere; and providing greater flexibility for students that might not otherwise graduate from high school.

A recent policy scan from the Carnegie Foundation explored the course credit policies for all 50 states and the District of Columbia in an effort to understand the distribution of seat-time requirement versus credit flexibility. The report notes a shift in policy away from the historically preferred Carnegie Unit and toward a broader definition of what may constitute course credit. While 10 states (Arkansas, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming) and the District of Columbia were still requiring the use of seat-time as the only definition of credit, the remaining 40 states allowed for some degree of flexibility. The report finds 29 of these states define credit by a combination of seat-time and/or additional measures such as competency-based education. An additional 10 states provide either waivers of flexibility for special populations or circumstances, and one state (New Hampshire) has abolished the Carnegie Unit altogether, requiring credit based upon mastery of content rather than seat-time.

The map below, created by the American Youth Policy Forum, illustrates the findings of the policy scan.


For more information, view the Carnegie Foundation report at the link provided here.

Austin Pace is a Research/Policy Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.

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