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Understanding Competency Education (redirected from Understanding Competency-based Approaches)

Page history last edited by nslocum@aurora-institute.org 5 years, 3 months ago



Competency-based education re-aligns our education system around student learning. The conventional system emphasizes differentiation of students, whereas competency-based education enables personalization so that students get the instruction and support they need to reach proficiency on academic standards as well as lifelong learning skills. 


Competency education is often mistakenly referred to as the elimination of seat-time. Eliminating seat-time without replacing it with new practices that ensure students reach proficiency may increase inequities. The time-based system must be replaced with a learning-based or competency-based system, fully aligned with students and what they need to educationally progress.


See Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education by Chris Sturgis and Katherine Casey. The first section is a primer on CBE.

See April 20, 2016 Webinar on What is Competency-Based Education?


Distinguishing Features


In 2018, Ten Distinguishing Features of Competency-Based Education were developed.


Purpose and Culture


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

Traditional systems narrowly prioritize and measure academic skills, often at the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Competency-based systems emphasize ensuring that students can apply academic knowledge and skills to new

contexts and become adept problem-solvers and independent learners. Thus, competency-based districts and

schools align around academic knowledge, transferable skills and the ability of students to become lifelong learners.

Culture, pedagogy and structures are designed to develop student agency, build foundational academic knowledge

and engage students in deeper learning that provide opportunities to engage in real-world problems.


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

While many traditional districts and schools have missions that purport to achieve “success for all,” many of these

same districts and schools maintain systemic practices that contribute directly to gaps in opportunity and inequitable

academic outcomes. For example, when schools use grading practices that obscure and conceal students’ actual

learning levels, students do not have the information they need to improve. When schools fail to support students

in addressing critical gaps in knowledge and skill, students become increasingly burdened by learning gaps that

accumulate and widen over time.


By contrast, competency-based districts and schools proactively challenge these practices and put in place

alternative systems and structures that promote success for all. They portray student learning authentically and

transparently. They meet students where they are and ensure they have mastered key content. Importantly, they

become flexible in using time, resources and student supports to ensure that students continue progressing toward

success. Commitment to mastery for all requires districts, schools and educators to challenge and “unlearn”

part of traditional education as we know it, and embrace collective accountability, continuous improvement and

personalization instead.


3. Districts and schools nurture empowering, inclusive cultures of learning. It is well-known that school culture

is important to creating high-performing schools. The traditional system tends to emphasize order, safety and

high achievement. Although high achievement is a shared value between competency-based and traditional

systems, the interpretation of achievement is different. Traditional schools privilege students that are already at

grade level by ranking and sorting students based on grade point average or other similar mechanisms. Traditional

systems often emphasize order and compliance, manifesting in school disciplinary policies that exclude students,

disproportionately impact students of color and contribute to students feeling that they do not belong.


Competency-based schools create cultures that emphasize growth, inclusion and empowerment for students and

adults. The culture of competency-based systems is rooted in the learning sciences, which emphasize maximizing

safety and belonging, promoting active learning, developing skills to manage learning, and intrinsic motivation and

cultivating intrinsic motivation. Districts and schools foster a growth mindset in students and adults. Students are

empowered to take ownership of their learning. Distributed leadership structures empower educators to make

decisions in the best interests of students. Equity lies at the heart of competency education to ensure that all

students benefit, not just some.




4. Students receive timely and differentiated instruction and support. In traditional schools, students often have to

fail before they receive support. Many times, these “supports” come in the form of remedial learning opportunities

that are long delayed. In competency-based systems, schools develop schedules and mechanisms for students

to receive additional support while they are struggling with new concepts so that they can continue to learn and

build knowledge and skills. Formative assessment and effective feedback based on the learning task are essential to

supporting students to learn, make progress and advance at a meaningful pace.


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

motivation. Many traditional systems seek to create aligned systems of learning and integrate the learning sciences

into instruction. However, these systems sort and teach students based on their age, not on their actual learning

needs and goals. Without falling into the trap of tracking, educators in competency-based schools begin with

the concept of “meeting students where they are” and design instructional strategies for students based on their

development, social and emotional skills and academic foundations. They use these assessments of student learning

and development to determine the supports that will be most effective in helping them learn and progress. Pedagogy

and learning design for students and adults are grounded in the learning sciences and seek to embed equity

strategies such as culturally responsive approaches and Universal Design for Learning into the core of instruction.

Helping students to build the lifelong learning skills often referred to as student agency is rooted in science of

learning and one of the student success outcomes.


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

of knowledge and skills. Traditional systems place heavy emphasis on summative assessment, much of which

emphasizes the lower portion of Bloom’s taxonomy: memorization, comprehension and application. All students

take grade-level assessments at the same point in time. In competency-based education the emphasis is on

assessment for learning. Formative assessment is deeply embedded in the cycle of learning to provide feedback that

helps students master learning objectives and guides teacher’s professional learning. Students continue to practice or

revise when they are “not yet” proficient until they reach the commonly defined performance level that demonstrates

mastery of learning expectations. Students are empowered and engaged when the process of assessing learning is

transparent, timely, draws upon multiple sources of evidence and communicates progress. In the most developed

competency-based schools, summative assessments are used based on the personal pathway of students when

they have shown evidence of proficiency, not grade level, as a means of quality control and internal accountability to

ensure that students are being held consistently to high standards.


Assessment systems in competency-based districts and schools also emphasize deeper learning. Districts and

schools build the capacity for performance-based assessments to ensure students know how to transfer knowledge

and build the higher order skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.




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

skills. Variability is a feature of the traditional system: what is to be learned, at what performance level mastery is

set, and how student work is graded will vary across districts, schools, and even within classrooms. The result is

that students are held to different expectations. Variability is also problematic because it is highly susceptible to

bias: when teachers and leaders who have not addressed their own biases are the final arbiters of student learning,

they may intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate inequitable outcomes for students. By contrast, competency-

based education asks: How do we know if students have learned?


We cannot be confident that students are really developing the desired knowledge and skills if we are not confident that we know how to measure those knowledge

and skills, or that educators across the system measure them the same way. Moderation processes ensure teachers

share expectations and understandings of standards. Similarly, teachers calibrate to ensure that they assess evidence

of learning consistently. Confidence in schools grows and equity is advanced when students, teachers and families

receive clear and trustworthy information about exactly where students are on the pathway toward graduation.


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. A transparent common learning continuum, including

standards and competencies that reflect the student success outcomes, establishes shared expectations for what

students will know and be able to do at every performance level. Students are more motivated and empowered

when learning targets and expectations of mastery are clear, and when they have voice in how they learn and

demonstrate proficiency.


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

students receive periodic report cards with A-F grades based on points for assignments, tests and behavior. Teachers

often have their own system of grading, which results in variability in determining achievement. There is little

opportunity for revision, a critical part of the cycle of learning, and students are ranked using the status of their

performance. The problem is that risk-taking, failure and revision are part of real and authentic learning processes.

Traditional grading systems create disincentives to these aspects of learning because they penalize failure. Grades in

the traditional system may reflect knowing, but they do not necessarily reflect learning.


In competency-based districts and schools, grading systems are rooted in the learning sciences. Failure and

mistakes are part of the learning process. The transparent common learning continuum is the backbone for the

system of grading. Students are clear on what they need to learn, what proficiency looks like, and the ways they can

demonstrate learning. Currently many schools use standards-based grading aligned to grade-level standards. Some

schools are beginning to use competency-based grading aligned to personalized learning paths. Grading policies

separate behaviors and lifelong learning skills from academics to ensure transparency and objectivity, with students

receiving effective feedback and guidance on both. Students are expected and supported to engage in additional

practice and revision until they can demonstrate proficiency.


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

pathways. In traditional schools, students advance to the next set of content and the next grade level whether

or not they need more time to master the content. Likewise, students are expected to engage with grade-level

content whether or not they have already mastered that content. Pacing guides tell teachers to move forward in the

curriculum even if students have not learned what they need.


Competency-based systems recognize that students may need more time to learn concepts and skills deeply. If

they have gaps in their mastery, scaffolding may be required to attain all the prerequisite knowledge and skills. More

instructional support and time are provided if needed and students advance when they are ready. Depending on

the domains and learning targets, students may be able to pursue personalized pathways forward rather than linear

progressions. Competency-based systems ensure students are truly prepared for future learning by basing progress

and credit accrual on demonstration of knowledge and skill, rather than the traditional system’s dependence on

proxies for learning, such as attendance or amount of time in class.


A Working Definition

In When Success Is the Only Option: Designing Competency-Based Pathways for Next Generation Learning, a working definition was proposed to guide the development of policies and practice. This is particularly important as the language varies among states, districts, and schools and includes “proficiency-” and “performance-based learning.” Later 100 innovators and leaders in competency education strengthened the working definition to describe a high-quality competency-based system. The following is the revised working definition of competency-based learning approaches:

  •  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 along with the development of important skills and dispositions.



Ready for more? Take a bit of time to explore some of the information on the following pages:








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