Ten Distinguishing Features of Competency-Based Education

Across the country, schools, districts and states are replacing the traditional, time-based structure with one that is designed to help each student reach proficiency. Competency-based education is a system designed for equitable student achievement to ensure all learners master academic knowledge, develop the expertise to apply it to real-world problems and build the skills to be lifelong learners for future success. Schools are organized in ways that respond to students and support, engage and motivate them to take ownership of their own learning. Competency-based structures are also designed to ensure students reach proficiency so that they, as well as their parents, are confident that they are learning what they need to as they advance toward graduation.

Although models will vary, there are ten features developed through a collaborative effort involving practitioners and policymakers that distinguish competency-based education from traditional systems. It is important to understand that even the most developed competency-based systems do not have all of these features fully implemented although they are certain to have some of them firmly in place.

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.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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