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Perspective | Competency-based education: What it is and why we should consider it

This is the second piece in a series of perspectives on competency-based education. Read the first article here.


With a growing emphasis on personalized education, schools and districts across North Carolina and beyond are looking for innovative approaches that are student-focused and meet the needs of every child. Per the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s (NC DPI) mission, one of their goals clearly states a passion for personalization — that “every student has a personalized education.” How can North Carolina’s public schools provide a personalized education for every student? One method is through competency-based education.

Competency-based education: What it is and what it isn’t

Competency-based education (CBE) is a pedagogical approach that complements a personalized learning experience. It is a model in which learning is not defined by seat time and students can advance through content at their own pace based on demonstrated mastery of a clearly defined set of measurable competencies.

Despite this understanding of CBE, there is still variance across CBE definitions. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and CompetencyWorks partnered with educators to develop a common definition for CBE that includes the following concepts:

  • 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; and
  • learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

The work of REL Southeast has also advanced the understanding of CBE. North Carolina’s REL Southeast Alliance — “Measuring Success Through Competency-Based Learning” — developed a definition for what CBE means in North Carolina in an effort to create consistency with partners and other stakeholders:

As a personalized learning approach, CBE provides a flexible and engaging learning environment in which progression is based on mastery of explicit learning objectives, or competencies, as demonstrated through evidence of student learning, rather than the time spent in a course/topic.

Conversely, it is equally important to understand what CBE is not. Context is important in the world of CBE, so giving students technology to complete assignments is not necessarily personalized instruction. CBE is about knowing students’ strengths, interests, and goals, and knowing how to tailor their learning experiences to maximize those strengths, tap into their interests, and achieve their goals.

Why consider implementing CBE?

Changes in existing state laws that encompass a focus on digital and personalized learning — as well as changes to federal law — have created ideal conditions for North Carolina schools to consider adopting competency-based approaches to education.

Credit by demonstrated mastery in North Carolina

In North Carolina, credit flexibility is afforded to some students by CBE systems, specifically through Credit by Demonstrated Mastery (CDM) policy. Some districts started implementing CDM as early as the 2013-2014 school year, primarily in high schools and/or middle schools offering high school-level content. CDM allows students to earn course credit by demonstrating mastery of the content without sitting through the required course. To earn credit, students complete a multi-phase assessment process including passing the state test for the course and then producing an artifact that requires the student to apply knowledge and skills relevant to the content standards.

While CDM allows some flexibility, it is a very limited CBE policy. First, this policy primarily targets academically gifted students. Second, the policy still requires students to take standardized assessments before receiving credit and is inflexible in terms of what it will accept to demonstrate mastery. Finally, NC DPI has explicitly stated that this is not intended to be used at scale; rather, CDM should be used to support a small subset of learners. CBE programs that are fully implemented make progression upon mastery open to all students.

Digital learning competencies

In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly passed into law a plan for the State Board of Education to develop digital teaching and learning competencies for both teachers and administrators across the state. These competencies were approved by the Board in June 2016. Teachers and school leaders should use these competencies to improve their practice and drive student learning. The work for developing digital learning competencies can be used as a model for the development of competencies in other areas.

Federal law and the Innovative Assessment Pilot

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which became law in December 2015, gives states more control and flexibility over testing and accountability. As part of ESSA, states can create plans to move away from high-stakes end-of-year assessments to a series of shorter, more formative assessments.

This policy change creates an opening for states to explore competency-based approaches and reconsider what student mastery means. In July 2019, North Carolina was approved by the US Department of Education as one of four states to assess student achievement in new, creative ways. Through the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) — which is a program designed to encourage local involvement in assessment development — NC DPI is taking its first steps to create multiple shorter, more relevant assessments for students to take.

North Carolina has an existing appetite to shift pedagogical practice and has taken some initial steps to personalization. To move forward with these changes, educators and policymakers must further consider the foundational components of personalized learning and start to think about tangible ways to support schools and districts as they look to personalization models like CBE to meet the needs of every child.

Allison Redden

Allison Redden (formerly Stewart) works as an education research analyst with RTI International’s Center for Education Services (CES). A former public school educator in the Triangle, Allison participated in several teacher leadership programs in North Carolina, including the Kenan Fellowship and the Education Policy Fellowship Program. She was the Public School Forum’s Beginning Teacher Leadership Network Coordinator for Wake County before moving to Tennessee to pursue her Master of Public Policy at Vanderbilt, specializing in K-12 Education Policy. She is interested in engaging in conversations and actions to advance equity, while navigating the intersections of education, economics, and policy. Redden is a proud product of North Carolina public schools, from Cabarrus County Schools to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.