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Overview of Different Explanations of Competency Education

Page history last edited by Eliot Levine 4 years, 8 months ago

On this page you can find how different organizations are defining and describing competency-based education. There are other definitions, that are too narrow and too  technologically-driven and fail to understand it as a whole school or whole system transition, that are not included here. See also Detailed Definition of Competency-Based Education.


CompetencyWorks 10 Distinguishing Features

CompetencyWorks developed 10 distinguishing features of competency-based education in 2018 through a collaborative process with leading educators and experts. (See the paper Levers and Logic Models.)


Purpose and Culture


1. Student success outcomes are designed around preparation for college, career and lifelong learning. 

2. Districts and school make a commitment to be responsible for all students mastering learning expectations. 

3. Districts and schools nurture empowering, inclusive cultures of learning.   




4. Students receive timely and differentiated instruction and support. 

5. Research-informed pedagogical principles emphasize meeting students where they are and building intrinsic motivation. 

6. Assessments are embedded in the personalized learning cycle and aligned to outcomes including the transfer of knowledge and skills. 




7. Mechanisms are in place to ensure consistency in expectations of what it means to master knowledge and skills. 

8. Schools and districts value transparency with clear and explicit expectations of what is to be learned, the level of performance for mastery, and how students are progressing. 

9. Strategies for communicating progress support the learning process and student success. 

10. Learners advance based on attainment of learning expectations (mastery) through personalized learning pathways.



Education Reimagined (2016)

Background: Developed comprehensive learner-centered framework by national mixed stakeholders that includes competency-based.


COMPETENCY-BASED learning is an alternative to age- or grade-based learning. In competency-based learning, each learner works toward competency and strives for mastery in defined domains of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Learners’ trajectories toward mastery are guided and managed, rather than placing the emphasis on their achievement of specific benchmarks in a fixed amount of time. Competency-based  learning recognizes that all learners are unique and that different learners progress at different paces. It allows the system structure to support variation of learning speeds in accordance with each learner’s specific challenges and needs. Assessments, both formative and summative, are utilized on a continuous basis to inform the learning and instructional strategy for each learner. Additional resources are provided to learners who need help to accelerate the pace of competency development.




Competency-based education works to:

  • Allow students to master each set of skills and learning objectives before moving on to the next level.
  • Empower teachers to build their desired culture and vision in the classroom to facilitate learning and prepare students for success.
  • Build a transparent learning environment that provides a shared understanding between students, parents and educators.
  • Provides a common set of clear learning targets and goals so students know what they need to do to succeed throughout their K-12 education.
  • Offers meaningful ways to assess progress, allowing students to demonstrate how and what they’ve learned.
  • Ensure all students are college- and career-ready with world-class knowledge and skills to compete in the workforce.


Great Schools Partnership

Background: GSP developed 10 Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning to inform districts and schools. (2015)

  1. All learning expectations are clearly and consistently communicated to students and families, including long-term expectations (such as graduation requirements and graduation standards), short-term expectations (such as the specific learning objectives for a course or other learning experience), and general expectations (such as the performance levels used in the school’s grading and reporting system).
  2. Student achievement is evaluated against common learning standards and performance expectations that are consistently applied to all students regardless of whether they are enrolled in traditional courses or pursuing alternative learning pathways.
  3. All forms of assessment are standards-based and criterion-referenced, and success is defined by the achievement of expected standards, not relative measures of performance or student-to-student comparisons.
  4. Formative assessments measure learning progress during the instructional process, and formative-assessment results are used to inform instructional adjustments, teaching practices, and academic support.
  5. Summative assessments evaluate learning achievement, and summative-assessment results record a student’s level of proficiency at a specific point in time.
  6. Academic progress and achievement are monitored and reported separately from work habits, character traits, and behaviors such as attendance and class participation, which are also monitored and reported.
  7. Academic grades communicate learning progress and achievement to students and families, and grades are used to facilitate and improve the learning process.
  8. Students are given multiple opportunities to improve their work when they fail to meet expected standards.
  9. Students can demonstrate learning progress and achievement in multiple ways through differentiated assessments, personalized-learning options, or alternative learning pathways.
  10. Students are given opportunities to make important decisions about their learning, which includes contributing to the design of learning experiences and learning pathways.


Jobs for the Future (2015)

Background:JFF manages the Student at the Center hub that advances student-centered learning. Competency-based progressions is one element of SCL. JFF also works in the field of CBE in higher education.


In a paper, JFF identified three core elements of competency education.


1. Mastery: Students advance to the next level, course, or grade based on demonstration of skills and content knowledge as outlined in clear, measurable learning objectives that hold all to the same high academic standards.

2. Pacing: Students progress at different rates in different areas, rather than on a teacher-driven, class-wide schedule. Students who do not demonstrate mastery of a competency on the first attempt continue learning and have multiple opportunities to try again.

3. instruction: Students receive customized supports to match their individual learning needs to keep them learning increasingly challenging material in a developmentally appropriate and motivating manner— and to ensure that those struggling in any area will be able to reach proficiency.


Institute for Personalized Learning (2016)

Background: Working primarily with districts and schools, the Institute has developed a "honeycomb" with three core elements of personalized learning of which proficiency-based learning is one of them.


Proficiency-based progress and supporting standards represent what learners are asked to master. Standards provide clear targets for learning and help to drive intermediate learning targets and expected outcomes. This component articulates what learners will learn, how deep or broad the learning will be, and how it will be demonstrated and measured. Learner progress toward the standards is based on growing mastery, not seat time.


Importantly, learning progress does not have to follow a single path: where practical, students are given choices regarding the sequence of learning, specific standards-aligned content and skills to learn, methods and resources to employ, and even how to document and assess learning. Regardless of the approach learners take, standards are challenging and compelling, and meeting them will prepare students both for future learning and for later success in academic, professional, and personal life.


Achieve (2016)

Background: With a focus on state policymakers, Achieve modified the CompetencyWorks definition to have six elements instead of five. See their communications toolkit.  


Competency-based pathways are designed to help all students reach college- and career-ready standards through the following strategies:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge.
  • The process of reaching learning outcomes encourages students to develop skills and dispositions important for success in college, careers and citizenship.


Foundation for Excellence in Education (2016)

Background:With a focus on state policy, FEE has developed a set of communication tools to engage state policymakers.


Competency-based education (also called mastery-based or proficiency-based education) is a system of instruction where students do not move on to the next concept or skill until they have shown that they have learned (or mastered) the current concept or skill.

In a competency-based education system, an individual student progresses as learning expectations are met, rather than moving through a predetermined curriculum schedule dictated by fixed, age-based grade levels or seat-time requirements. A student can accelerate through concepts and skills they have mastered when they are ready to move on, and receive more time and support in areas they have not yet mastered.


Regional Education Lab New England and Islands (2015)

Background: In a 2015 study, REL-NEI found that there was no common definition of CBE in their region (7 states) but there were four common elements. Note that they organized the elements based on student experience.  


1. Students must demonstrate mastery of all required competencies to earn credit or graduate.

2. Students advance once they have demonstrated mastery, and students receive more time, and possibly personalized instruction, to demonstrate mastery if needed.

3. Students are assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery, usually requiring that students apply their knowledge, not just repeat facts.

4. Students can earn credit toward graduation in ways other than seat time, including apprenticeships, blended learning, dual enrollment, career and technical education programs, and other learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom setting.


AIR (2016)

Background: In a 2016 study, AIR identified four features of CBE:

  • Specific learning targets for what students should know and be able to do to get credit.

     • Assessment, support, and monitoring of individual students’ progress as they work toward meeting these targets.

     • Requirements that students demonstrate mastery of competencies before they can earn credit and advance.

  • Flexible pacing and progression (both extended or accelerated).


Digital Promise Now  (2015)

Background: DPN's League of innovative Schools has a project on competency-based education. It defines CBE with four features:


  • Focuses on student growth.
  • Gives students ownership of their learning.
  • Personalizes learning to meets students’ social, emotional, and academic needs.
  • Equips students with the skills and knowledge necessary for college, and for a lifetime.



Background:In a survey, FSG originally described CBE (below)


Competency-based education refers to a systems model in which (1) teaching and learning are designed to ensure students are becoming proficient by advancing on demonstrated mastery and (2) schools are organized to provide timely and differentiated support to ensure equity.


A competency-based structure enables personalized learning to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible. With clear and calibrated understanding of proficiency, learning can be tailored to each student’s strengths, needs, and interests and enable student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn.


CompetencyWorks Working Definition (2011)

Background: Developed at the Competency-Based Pathways Summit sponsored by iNACOL and CCSSO, the working definition was designed to guide discussion regarding the broader education system, state policy, district operations and school design.


  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Click here for an in depth look at the working definition.

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