Competency-Based Education

Instructor assisting students on computers

Teacher assisting students working on computers

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In recent years there has been a growing interest in proficiency-based or competency-based education in both K-12 and postsecondary education—a shift that has been driven, in part, by advances in digital learning technologies. Although no standard format exists for competency-based education, the approach typically involves:

  • Instruction. Students receive customized supports to match their individual learning needs in each subject, helping them learn increasingly more challenging material in a developmentally appropriate and motivating matter.
  • Pacing. Students progress at different rates in different areas rather than on a teacher-driven, class-wide schedule.
  • Mastery. Students advance to the next level, course, or grade based on demonstrating their skills and content knowledge as defined by clear, measurable learning objectives.

Building the Evidence: Key Research

Despite considerable momentum in the field, competency-based systems have not been extensively researched. Recent studies have described the experiences of educators undertaking competency-based reforms or have highlighted promising models, but these studies have not systematically examined the effects of these models on student outcomes.

RAND has been working to grow the evidence base around competency-based education by evaluating pilot programs in the K–12 sector to better understand student outcomes following exposure to this type of instruction. In addition, this research has comprised exploration into some of the equity challenges that competency-based education may introduce or exacerbate.

  • High school students with teacher in class, using laptops

    Examining Competency-Based Education

    Competency-based education meets students where they are academically, provides opportunities for choice, and awards students credit for evidence of learning, not time spent studying a subject. Researchers identify lessons for policy, partnerships, and practice regarding this approach.

    Aug 4, 2014

  •  Young student looking for reference books at high school library

    Equity in Competency Education Demands Overcoming Obstacles and Realizing Potential

    Competency-based education approaches are designed to foster equity by preventing students from falling behind or staying behind. In practice, though, poorly implemented competency-based programs could create inequity in opportunities and in outcomes.

    Nov 14, 2014

  • High school students collaborating

    Measuring Hard-to-Measure Student Competencies

    Interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies such as communication and resilience are important predictors of success and civic engagement after high school. They're also difficult to measure. Practical, high-quality measures could help educators and policymakers improve outcomes for students.

    Nov 3, 2014