As I begin planning the type of classroom I want for my children, I find myself embracing competency-based education (CBE) more and more. In fact, it is a large piece of the school program I am currently writing. CBE transforms the traditional learning environment as most Americans know it. The focus shifts from testing what teachers believe they have taught to students demonstrating what they have actually learned.

The Basics of Competency-Based Education

There are several components to competency-based education that separate it from the traditional standards-based approach. They are:

  1. No (or nearly no) numerical grades
  2. Minimal (if any) lesson plans for whole-group instruction
  3. Student-driven and individualized
  4. Specific, measurable learning targets
  5. Alternative assessments as primary tools
  6. Advancement after demonstrated mastery

It’s important for educators and parents to understand what makes CBE worth using as a replacement to the current instructional system for students.

CBE Grading Systems

Of course, the lack of numerical grades is one of the most notable shifts in CBE, as most Americans are used to 0-100 scales with 70% being the minimum passing score. Colleges and universities use tcompetency-based learning, grades, studentshese seemingly arbitrary scores to determine who gets scholarships and who doesn’t. As such, many people are not jumping to abandon the  system despite the continued interest in CBE, especially in higher education.

CBE uses proficiency levels (distinguished, proficient, developing etc.) with rubrics and provides explicit, detailed feedback to each student with each submission. Even if a school uses a 4 or 5-point system, students
know what to show for mastery. There are no “filler” homework assignments or zeroes for unsubmitted work.

What does an 89% on a report card tell us about a student’s specific mastery of each standard addressed that semester? What kind of proficiency shifts between an 89.4% and an 89.7%? CBE requires educators to be specific about what students’ mastery levels are in each standard or competency. That helps teachers, students, and parents know exactly where to start the next school year.

Lesson Plans

You won’t see the same type of lesson plans in CBE classrooms either. That’s because students can move through the coursework as they master each competency. There’s very little whole-group instruction because students aren’t forced to keep the same pace like they are in a traditional room. CBE lesson plans reflect small group instruction (for intervention and acceleration) and skills-based learning.

Students direct their projects and determine how they’d like to demonstrate mastery. That’s why solid rubrics must be in place. You might have 13 students showing you 13 very different projects that all address the same competencies. Each student has an individualized plan for competencies based on their skill level. It’s up to the teacher to facilitate and coach them as they progress at their own pace.

Individualized Learning

As I said in the section before, CBE is individualized. Students decide a great deal of the curriculum as they progress and determine how to show mastery of their course competencies. You’ll find that teachers in CBE classrooms use adaptive technology of some kind to help monitor students’ learning and progression. The adaptive tech helps educators determine who needs interventions. Small-group instruction occurs as a result of assessing where the students are at any given point.

Measurable Learning Targets

This is one of my personal favorites. Students know exactly what they need to master in each lesson in CBE classrooms. No one can ask, “Why does this matter” or “What do I need to learn” because it’s all listed in the competencies in “I Can” statements for students. The keyword though is measurable. Words like “learn” or “understand” do not tell us enough, nor can we measure those. Instead, “I can use multiplication and division to find commission” can have correct or incorrect answers associated with it. Additionally, teachers see which step(s) confused students.

Another plus of competency-based programs in this regard is that the various assignments and projects students complete build upon each other to demonstrate their mastery. By the end of the unit or year, students have a linear view of their development in their portfolios.

competency-based education, students, alternative assessment

Photo in the public domain

Alternative Assessments

I just mentioned portfolios because those are highly important in documenting students’ proficiency in competency-based learning. Because students’ assessments will reflect more than campus-wide benchmarks, state exams, and teacher-made tests, educators should concentrate on creating a solid portfolio system that allows students to store artifacts that represent their progress and mastery levels of each competency. Projects that connect to the community and world at large are also common in CBE programs because educators embed 21st century skills (collaboration especially) in the CBE curriculum.

Personalized Pacing

Another selling point of CBE is the fact that each student works at their own pace. Unlike most traditional classrooms, when a student needs extra time to master a concept, CBE allows for that. There is no strict scope and sequence or pacing guide. Nobody requires teachers to move on one week after introducing something new. Equally great is students who know a topic can move on after showing it. Why “teach to the middle” if each student matters? CBE emphasizes that every child matters.

What’s Next?

If you’re curious about competency-based education, consider researching local schools in your area. Talk to your child’s school administrators about it. If you homeschool or are considering it, the CBE model might be exactly what your child needs. You can offer your child more focused learning that is college and career ready.