Expert Viewpoint

The Re-Emergence of Competency-Based Education: What It Might Look Like and Why It’s Needed in Today’s Classrooms

When the pandemic turned every bedroom, living room, and community center into a classroom, a fundamental shift occurred in what constitutes evidence of learning. No longer able to comfortably walk the aisles, peer over shoulders, or distribute, collect, and score assignments at their desk, teachers found themselves more willing and interested in having students help figure out new ways to show what they know and are able to do.

The pandemic sewed and fertilized the roots of competency-based education and performance-based assessment. Demonstrating skills and abilities by any means available shattered the one-size-fits-all model of bubble sheets, rote memorization, and timed exams. Already the backlash to No Child Left Behind had softened the terrain, but figuratively tearing down the classroom walls tossed many educators and students into the deep-end of these educational cousins which are soon to be the hallmarks of 21st century learning.

The (Re)Emergence of Competency-Based Education with Performance-Based Assessment

Competency-based education (CBE) awards credit to students the moment they demonstrate proficiency in a specific skill or standard. One’s rate of learning no longer has to be slowed by that of the group or run over by its pace. Teaching to the mean no longer serves a purpose if every student must demonstrate proficiency to progress.

Many elective and career & technical education teachers see the growing interest in CBE and wonder, “What took you so long?” In world language classes, students must speak, listen, and write to show competency. In music, students must play the notes on the page. In art, usage of the medium is vital. A multiple-choice test or essay assignment in any of these classes does little to show a student’s acquisition of competency.

The competencies become even more critical in career & technical education. Industries rely on students mastering specific skills to transition into their workforce. Be it fluency in a programming language, the operation of specific machinery, or the application of life-saving techniques, these competencies are best demonstrated, evaluated, and validated through performance. Watching a nursing student find a vein and insert the needle to draw blood is a greater representation of the competency than his/her ability to identify the steps in chronological order on a written assessment.

Thus, we see competency-based education and performance-based assessment often applied in tandem. And, their application is just as meaningful in the early years of learning as they are when students are readying themselves for post-secondary plans. Earning a “B” in second grade math is not nearly as powerful as seeing a student’s work that demonstrates adding and subtracting two-digit numbers. A video clip of a student reading aloud from a chapter book conveys a degree of competency than a letter grade assigned to the language arts class.

An Example of Competency-Based Education with Performance-Based Assessment

To meet the diverse learning modalities, CBE is best implemented in environments that allow students to demonstrate their proficiency via means that suit them best. For some, that may still be a multiple-choice test. For others, it may be through performance, simulation, or demonstration. This is a performance-based assessment. Here is an example of how they work in tandem:

Stephen struggles mightily with reading the printed word. Every test he takes – regardless of content – is a reading test to him. His science teacher, Ms. Lyons, is teaching characteristics of molecules. She asks Stephen, “What is the effect of temperature on molecules?”

Stephen stands with his arms spread wide and fingers waving. He replies, “When it’s warm, molecules are like this. And when it’s cold ...” Stephen clasps his hands together in a tight ball and says, “... it’s like this.”

Rebecca quickly exclaims, “Ms. Lyons! Look at the ice in your cup. It’s melting. That’s the same thing as what Stephen said, just in reverse! The ice molecules are spreading when the temperature rises. That’s what melting is!”

Ms. Lyons asks the class, “What are other examples you can think of?” See if in the next 20 minutes each of you can come up with your own example. If you want to work with a partner, that is fine as well. Then, you can tell me your example, make a video, take a picture, or write it down. It’s up to you. You just have to prove your understanding.” Ms. Lyons continues, “Stephen and Rebecca – I can’t help everyone in the time remaining. Can you show your teamwork skills and act as coaches to help classmates who may be struggling?”

Ms. Lyons will be able to certify students’ proficiency as they demonstrate competency of the learning target when students are ready and via the means that fit their ability to communicate what they know.

CBE and Post-Secondary Skills Application

The amplification of CBE comes with a shift in the overall direction of teaching and learning. With search engines at our fingertips, no longer is education solely the memorization and recitation of facts. In a fraction of a second, we can know the capital of Missouri and the variables of the quadratic formula. As pure recall fades, the importance of processes emerges. These processes are now commonly referred to as “post-secondary skills,” evolving from earlier terms of “soft skills” or “employability skills.” Data analysis, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and many other process-oriented skills are receiving greater priority in the educational dogma.

As educators determine the extent to which these processes can be taught and the means by which they can be assessed, CBE and performance-based assessment emerge as the most functional vehicles to date. Intriguing as well is the increased interest in viewing activities outside of traditional classes as loci of both post-secondary skill instruction and assessment. The team captain demonstrates leadership; the eSports athlete demonstrates problem-solving and critical thinking; the Eagle Scout demonstrates character and service; and so on.

No Solution, Just Evolution

There may always be things we learn that demand the efficiency of memorization and recitation through traditional means. From sight words to order of operations, certain concepts remain key building blocks for learning. In this moment though we begin to explore which concepts may be better facilitated through the non-traditional methods of CBE and performance-based assessment. That process, in and of itself, is a learning activity for educators.

Consider the following protocol:

Take a look at the last teacher-created, traditional quiz or test administered. Of the test items included, which questions could students demonstrate their responses:

  1. Through the use of manipulatives?
  2. Through presentation or demonstration?
  3. Through simulation?

For the current or upcoming unit of instruction, identify three learning targets to be assessed. Have students show what they know through both traditional modes of assessment as well as through CBE experiences. Then, consider what the data shows:

  • For which learning targets is student competency better presented through traditional assessment? Through CBE?
    • Is that a factor of the learning target or the way in which the assessment (traditional or CBE) challenged students?
    • Based on this experience, what kinds of learning targets may lend themselves more to CBE? To traditional assessment?
  • Are there students who more effectively demonstrate competency through the CBE than the traditional assessment?
    • Why is CBE a more effective vehicle for those students?
    • Could the task itself be revised to unlock the same potential in other students?
  • Find a partner teaching the same content. Together, design the next assessment using both CBE and traditional methods. Without giving each other any background about the students and eliminating all student identification (e.g., convert each student name into a random number), trade student responses for the partner to analyze and assess. Then, go back through the exercises in a & b together to see what is learned.

Positive Side Effects

The exploration of CBE and performance-based assessment inherently means educators are searching for more ways that MORE students can show what they know and can do. The expansion of valid experiences fosters movements of cultural relevancy. By recognizing that valid experiences may differ by individual student, equity advances. Students previously identified with “learning disabilities” are more clearly identified as “students who learn differently” as their modalities become operational ways of showing competencies. This is a monumental shift from identifying the disability as pathology within the student to a much more accurate critique of the educational system in which they learn.

I want my children in a classroom like that facilitated by Ms. Lyons, where she no longer assesses learning only in ways and times at her direction, where evidence of learning is not relegated to multiple-choice tests on Fridays, and where student competency is recognized when, where, and how it occurs individually.

With the pandemic as the next catalyst for CBE and performance-based assessment, such learning environments may become the norm – and we all will be better for it.