Brad Bowles sometimes sees high school students getting bogged down in their online classes.

If students didn't have to put in 120 hours to earn those credits, he said it could incentivize them to get the work done more quickly.

“That's a way we could get students to be internally motivated to succeed in the classroom,” said Bowles, who coordinates the online learning lab at St. John's High School.

That's part of the thinking behind a new effort in Charleston County that would enable students to earn certain high school credits without satisfying the state's “seat time” requirement for 120 hours of instruction per class.

Proficiency-based classes award credit to students based on whether they have mastered its content, regardless of whether they had 120 hours of instruction.

South Carolina school districts have been able to request waivers to offer proficiency-based instruction for specific classes, but this year the S.C. Department of Education allowed districts to submit proposals that would cover their entire systems.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has been a big proponent of giving districts more flexibility, and this fell in line with his desire to make it easier for districts to be innovative.

“It really is quite wide open as to how far districts can go with their proficiency-based systems,” said Roy Stehle, director of the state education department's Office of Federal and State Accountability. “It's up to districts how far they want to take it.”

All but five of the state's school districts have submitted requests for some kind of relief from the 120-hour seat-time requirement, but the degree to which districts plan to pursue those options varies. Most districts' proficiency-based courses are offered online.

Neither Berkeley nor Dorchester 2 schools intend to make any substantial changes to those offerings this year, but Charleston school officials said they were. And they think it will make a difference for high achievers and struggling students alike.


In 1906, the Carnegie Unit was developed as a measure of the amount of time students have studied a subject, and it since has become the standard for high schools and colleges in gauging students' course attainment, according to the Carnegie Foundation.

Some people, including the foundation's president, have called it obsolete, in part because of the new options available to schools through technology. The Carnegie Foundation has said it wants to revise the unit so it is based not on time, but on competency.

As of last year, at least 36 states had adopted policies enabling schools or districts to award credits based on proficiency rather than seat time, according to the National Governors Association.

At the end of the 2010-11 school year in South Carolina, 10 school districts had submitted requests to offer 27 proficiency-based courses, or ones that didn't have a seat-time requirement. Twenty-six of those were for online learning.

Stehle didn't have figures for the 2012-13 school year, but he said the number of proficiency-based courses statewide was far more than 27.

Changes in Charleston

School districts statewide have allowed students to make up credits in courses they failed, and those credit recovery classes don't have a seat-time mandate because students already had sat through the 120-hour course. The vast majority of those classes are offered online.

Districts vary on how they have handled offering initial credit courses to students. Berkeley and Dorchester 2 have allowed students to earn that credit online without satisfying the 120-hour seat time requirement, but Charleston has not.

In Charleston, that will change this year, but it probably won't happen until the beginning of the second semester. The district needs to work through issues such as how to compensate teachers who take on one of these courses, as well as how teachers will monitor students who are choosing to move faster than the 120 hours allotted for the semester, said Lou Martin, the district's associate superintendent who oversees high schools.

“We need to be careful so we get it right,” he said. “We're going to demonstrate how we did it and how it was effective.”

Some of the courses will be online, but he hopes eventually to offer those kinds of opportunities in traditional classrooms. The emphasis on proficiency already is being integrated in some schools, such as St. John's High, in what educators describe as “flipped” classrooms. In that environment, teachers are the facilitators rather than the one providing direct instruction, and students work on projects that they complete at their own pace.

“It's almost like an individual plan that teachers have to have for students, but that's the beauty of proficiency-based learning, and this is integral to a flipped classroom,” Martin said.

When students master a course's content, they can move forward, perhaps to another course, but that wouldn't be possible without this flexibility from the state, he said.

One perspective

Senior Quadre Chisolm is taking an online credit recovery class this year, and he said it's sometimes hard to stay motivated. He said that probably would be different if he could move through online classes faster and go on to earn other credits to help him graduate on time.

U.S. history teacher James Maltese said he had concerns about waiving seat time for some courses that are associated with standardized tests. If a bright student moved through the standards faster but the testing window didn't change, that student could have a long break between the course and the exam, which could lead to lower scores, he said.

Although it would be an extreme challenge to make a proficiency-based approach work in a traditional classroom, he said he could see it making sense in a flipped classroom.

St. John's High Principal Lee Runyon said he sees this as a chance to provide students with more access and opportunities. Still, it's critical to ensure that the proficiency-based courses have the same level of rigor as those with 120 hours, and that students who are completing them in less time are not receiving a dumbed-down experience, he said.

“It's not about taking the curriculum's rigor to an all-time low; it's about taking it to an all-time high,” Runyon said.

It will be a challenge for teachers to do flipped classrooms, but it's worth it because kids like the individualized lessons and they are more engaged, Runyon said. He saw the change as good for high-achieving students, who might want to move through courses faster, as well as low-achieving students, who might be bored and need an alternative to a traditional classroom.

“For kids, it's not about seat time,” Runyon said. “It's 'Did I earn the credit?'”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.