A Guide to Competency-Based Learning in High School

At Iowa BIG, an XQ high school program in Cedar Rapids, IA, students learn by…

By Anna Sudderth

At Iowa BIG, an XQ high school program in Cedar Rapids, IA, students learn by doing. For example, when Cedar Rapids was hit with a derecho—a severe windstorm—that left the community in disarray, students took the opportunity to get involved by creating documentary films about the impact of extreme weather. In partnership with the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library, students made short, two-minute films focusing on sustainability, the environment, and how their community rallied together for support after the storm. Through this project, they gained knowledge and skills around science, conducting interviews, film production, and story-telling—and they also got to make meaningful community connections. Teacher Mark Matson explained, “They’re so excited about it, the ideas are just flowing. They’re just so excited to get to work.”

Projects like this one aren’t just fun for students; they are also highly rigorous.  And they happen all day every day. Through dynamic, personalized learning, Iowa BIG students build measurable skills in defined areas like critical thinking, creativity, and adaptability. As Grace, an Iowa BIG student, put it—students learn “personal skills like managing, team-building, and accountability. Things that I wouldn’t normally do on a normal basis, but I can take those things back to my normal [traditional] school.” 

This dynamic approach to education is possible because Iowa BIG centers student learning by taking a meaningful, engaged approach to learning that is competency-based rather than time-based alone.

In this video, instructor Justin Reich, Director of the Teaching Systems Lab and faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explains what competency-based education (CBE) is by presenting some characteristic elements and considering aspects that are especially variable.

What Is Competency-Based Education

At its core, competency-based education or (CBE) is an approach to education where students progress through learning content and skills based on mastering a defined and transparent set of core competencies, rather than the time they’ve spent in class. 

Organizing by competencies enables educators to integrate the teaching of academics and core life skills such as collaboration and problem-solving, putting the focus on a broader set of outcomes and measuring what students have actually learned. Defining core competencies toward these more rigorous learning outcomes, encompassing both academic knowledge and life skills, better prepares students with the skills and dispositions they’ll need for postsecondary success.

Many schools are now using CBE. XQ is currently partnering with Imagine NYC Schools to support new high school models while also reimagining existing high schools in the nation’s largest public school district. One of these schools is Thomas A. Edison Career & Technical Education High School in Queens. Students who are active in Edison’s reimagining team worked with their Social Studies teacher, Phillip Baker, in the spring of 2022 to envision competency-based learning. They answered questions about it from XQ Senior Education Editor Beth Fertig in this video.

There are seven features that define a competency-based approach. Competency-based education experts at the Aurora Institute offer this widely used, seven-part definition of competency-based education: 

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence. 
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. 
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time. 
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing. 
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems. 
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

Competency-Based Education in Practice

What does it look like to put this definition into practice? Part of what makes competency-based programs so effective is the flexibility they offer to personalize learning for students. Yet even though no two schools implementing competency-based education look exactly the same, they do share some common features. Best practices of schools implementing competency-based education include: 

Why is CBE important?

We know that high school students are hungry for change. They don’t want to spend high school sitting in class with no guarantee that they’re actually learning, or that what they learn will be relevant to their lives after graduating. Instead, students crave a high school experience that prepares them for the lives they want to lead.

We also know that the current model of high school does not serve a majority of students. XQ’s landscape analysis of competency-based education shows a reality where students graduate with transcripts that are a record of time and activity, but not a good measure of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they acquired. High school should prepare students with the tools they need for success in the future. In a competency-based approach, all learning is structured around that goal. 

Competency-Based Education and Equity

Traditional high school often takes a “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning: students progress based on universal measures like seat time and scores on standardized tests. In contrast, competency-based education considers each student on an individual level and asks: has this student mastered the skills and knowledge they need for success? And if not, what learning plan will empower them to do so? 

Taking a competency-based approach gives educators flexibility to meet the needs of all students, while holding all students to high standards of learning. When practiced with fidelity, this approach increases equity for all learners. In competency-based education, educators develop standards and learning goals for students based on the actual needs and goals of their student body. 

For example, at Crosstown High, a diverse-by-design XQ school in Memphis, TN, all student learning is designed around 12 competencies, some of which include:

  • Read critically
  • Express oneself boldy
  • Learn from the past
  • Sustain wellness
  • Engage as a citizen

As this list illustrates, these competencies encompass Tennessee state standards, but they also go much further. These competencies encompass life skills graduates will need to navigate the world. Lucy, a Crosstown student, explained how she’s mastered these competencies through meaningful, hands-on projects that are flexible to the interests and needs of each student: “We get to pick what we’re really interested in and that helps us learn. In geometry, we built sustainable houses. I designed the whole house and we used a ton of math. It helped the information stick in our minds, because we got to put it to use. That was a really good way for me to learn. And a really cool final product.”

Because of its flexibility and focus on individual students, competency-based education enables teachers to better serve students whose needs and circumstances are not met by traditional high school. Erin Whalen, the executive director and principal of XQ school Da Vinci Rise High in Los Angeles, CA observed how educators at Bronx Arena high school in New York City use competency-based strategies to empower at-risk students. At Bronx Arena, rather than designated class times, students learn through “arenas” run by generalist teachers. These arenas are facilitated independent work sessions, where students can work at their own pace and progress through content when they’re ready, with constant access to teachers and peers. This competency-based structure empowers students to lead their own learning. It also offers flexibility around student schedules; regardless of a student’s circumstances outside of school, missing class won’t lead them to fall behind. As Whalen explained, these structures “ensure the holistic support of each and every student in the building.”

Competency-Based Education for Real World Learning

High school should prepare students for success in life outside of the classroom. To do this, students need to understand how the skills they’re learning now will serve them in real life. Making these real-life connections also helps students succeed within the classroom: when students can connect what they learn in class to their lived experiences, their learning becomes more meaningful and engaged. Yet despite the benefits of engaging students in their own education and preparing students for the real-world, high school students often lack agency in both how and what they learn. Competency-based education changes this.

Competency-based education teaches students how to learn by involving them as active participants in their own education, making them learners for life. As the Aurora Institute’s definition of competency-based learning emphasizes, competency-based education asks students to make decisions about how they will learn and, in turn, how they will demonstrate that learning. 

Derek Jensen, now Seminole County Director of Teaching and Learning and founding leader of PSI High, a real-world learning program in Seminole County, FL, previously observed how students lead their own learning at Avalon Charter School in St. Paul, MN. At Avalon High, students have constant access to a dashboard of their learning goals, so they can see where they need to demonstrate mastery. Students then work alongside advisors to plan projects, pick classes, and build placed-based learning experiences. As they work, students record their progress towards mastery of competencies. This is one example of how competency-based education asks students to master learning skills like:

  • Time management
  • Organization
  • Self-assessment
  • Intrinsic motivation to learn and improve

These learning skills aren’t unique to PSI High—they’re integral to any competency-based approach. Commenting on the competency-based program at Iowa BIG, teacher Shawn Cornally summed up what it’s like to help students develop these skills: “As a teacher in this system, I can’t believe that I get to coach kids on how to manage their time, space, and all the things we all agree are really important for high school students to learn.” Emphasizing these practical skills prepares students for lifelong learning outside of the classroom: where it is up to them to problem-solve and self-regulate to meet real-life challenges. 

Competency-based education also expands what students learn, linking academic skills and content with their applications in the real-world. For example, at Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, students build competencies through real-world projects that go beyond the walls of the classroom—like building and racing electric vehicle go-karts. For this project, a group of students worked for weeks on all aspects of designing and constructing the cart. Students did fundraising, marketing, and hands-on building to make their plan a reality. Through this work, students worked towards mastery of some of Purdue Polytechnic’s 20 identified competencies; by gaining literacy in math and science, they passed the engineering standard. At the same time, they got to pursue a project that ignited their passion, experiencing how the competencies they learned in school applied to engaging real-world projects.

Assessing Mastery in Competency-Based Education

If competency-based education hinges on students achieving mastery of competencies, how is that mastery measured? And how are those measurements different from traditional standardized tests?

First, a definition of mastery: in a competency-based education setting, mastery means the level of knowledge or expertise a student needs in order to apply a given skill. In contrast to traditional testing, in competency-based education, assessment not only determines whether students have achieved mastery but also helps them on their path towards doing so. 

What does this look like in practice? In competency-based education, assessment should be:

  • Frequent: An ingrained part of students’ work cycles, rather than a high-stakes, end of project event
  • Formative (not just summative): Aimed to monitor student learning and provide feedback they can use to improve their work
  • Standards-based: Aligned with clearly-communicated competencies and standards
  • Collaborative: Conducted in partnership with students

As these qualities demonstrate, assessment in competency-based education includes much more than traditional end-of-unit tests. It’s part of the process of learning, an opportunity for students and educators to get information about a student’s progress on mastering their learning goals, then focus on areas where students need support.

Examples from Latitude High School—an XQ school in Oakland, CA—and Brooklyn Laboratory High School—an XQ school in Brooklyn, NY—show the meaningful role that competency-based assessments can play in learning. During remote learning, students at Latitude High demonstrated their learning in a “show what you know” model: to show their progress on a lab on thermal insulation, students shared Flip Grid videos with their teachers. This kind of assessment was low-stakes and student-driven, yet it provided a regular opportunity for students and teachers to see students’ progress towards mastery. 

Brooklyn LAB uses a similar “show what you know” approach to guide every aspect of student learning. All students at Brooklyn Lab have access to a personalized learning program that tracks their progress towards mastery of key competencies. Students receive day-to-day updates as well as cumulative “Mastery Progress Reports” to understand what they need to tackle in a project before moving to the next step. Adults are key to helping students navigate this system of assessment: teachers use reports of student progress to customize student learning, and personalized “success coaches” offer students the support and encouragement to guide their own educational journey. 

How to Develop A Competency-Based Program

For teachers shifting to competency-based education from more traditional, teacher-centered modes, the change can be intimidating. KnowledgeWorks provides some answers to common questions or fears: 

What does classroom management look like?Rules and norms still exist, but they are determined in partnership with students, and students take on ownership of class culture.
Does this mean I have to create individual plans for every student in my class?No—CBE means communicating the standards students need to reach with students, and then giving over some responsibility to students to guide their own learning.
How does assessment work?Teachers can use embedded, formative assessments to keep track of student progress and help students understand where they need to focus their learning.

Educators from Crosstown High and PSI High offer more tips for how to implement competency-based education in your classroom, especially if you’re starting from scratch. To design competency-based curriculum, they recommend:

  • Start with asking—who are your students, and what skills and knowledge do they need to be successful? 
  • Create competencies based on those skills and knowledge, and communicate the competencies with students (consider placing visual reminders of the competencies, like posters, throughout the classroom)
  • Design project-based lessons where possible, which create room for students to take leadership over their learning and progress at an individual pace
  • Construct rubrics that explicitly assess student progress on competencies
  • Build-in frequent opportunities for students to receive feedback and revise their work

Competency-Based Learning Examples

Teachers and schools implementing a competency-based learning program don’t need to start from scratch. Círculos, Grand Rapids Public Museum School, and Crosstown High all published their guides for implementing competency-based programs, developed in partnership with reDesign, as well as competency-based lesson plans. Explore below for tips and inspiration, and follow the links to the lesson plans to see how each project connects with essential questions, subject areas, competencies, and standards. 

Competency-Based Learning PlanCompetency-Based Lesson Example
CírculosThe Use of Data to Catalyze Social Change
In this project, students will “learn how data is used to create compelling arguments and critically examine our world.” They will “identify or gather data around an important issue, analyze it, and use it to create an argument to make a call for change.”
Grand Rapids Public Museum SchoolThe How of Rocket Science Engineering
In this project, students will work in groups to “design and build your own rocket to launch,” completing all related mathematical equations necessary to make the rocket function. During the project, students will also learn about the history of the Space Race through visits to the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
Crosstown HighThe Power of Me and Where I’m From
In this project, students will explore parts of their identity through discussion, writing, and reflection. Then, students will “use what [they] have learned to design a policy for an inclusive community, expressed in two policy briefs—one for Crosstown High School and one for the Memphis City Council—answering the essential question, How can we create an inclusive policy for a diverse school and city?” Students will “present [their] policy briefs to school and city officials before a public audience.”

A Community Approach to Competency-Based Education

While teachers and schools implementing competency-based education can learn from the best practices of other communities, there’s no single roadmap to implementing competency-based education that will work for all students. Competency-based education requires constant flexibility, innovation, and communication—between teachers and students, but also between teachers themselves. It’s a process of continuous learning for everyone involved. 

Educators at Círculos, an XQ school in Santa Ana, CA, embody this spirit of continuous learning and communication. Students at Círculos learn by pursuing engaging competency-based projects, like partnering with professional architects at firm Visioneering Studios to plan a new green alleyway for the city. These real-world projects connect to core competencies at Círculos, like:

  • Learning Independently
  • Leading Inquiry
  • Designing Solutions

This kind of learning experience is only possible because adults at Círculos constantly reflect and innovate to respond to the needs of students. The staff at Círculos holds weekly three-hour meetings, as well as regular listening sessions with students, to evaluate what’s working and what needs to be improved. Based on feedback from these sessions, teachers fine-tune curriculum to better serve students. This process of innovation keeps student voice at the center, and ensures that every aspect of Círculos is supporting student learning.

Círculos school founder Daniel Allen summed up this approach, saying, “Real learning, of course, happens as we develop conceptual understanding and skills that we didn’t have before. Learning takes time and exposure to new ideas. You need to deliberately structure time and experiences that will force you to learn new skills and consider new approaches.”

Like teachers at Círculos, consider these questions to develop a sustainable competency-based program:

  • How can you regularly gather student feedback?
  • How can you build structures, like meetings or planning sessions, to collaborate with other teachers?
  • How will you evaluate lesson plans to know if they are meeting student needs?

Challenges of Competency-Based Education and How to Solve Them

For many educators and schools, competency-based education represents a big change. Making the shift to competency-based education when current systems are so aligned with more traditional modes presents some significant challenges. However, many districts and schools have overcome these challenges and have implemented robust competency-based programs. Learning from their examples offers a pathway for success. 

The Education Policy Innovation Collaborative followed three Michigan school districts in their efforts to implement competency-based education. Researchers defined competency-based education using the Aurora Institute’s seven part definition. This study examined learning outcomes in each district, and consulted with teachers and school leaders to hear how they overcame initial challenges. 

The study identifies areas of challenge, as well as recommendations based on how schools in the study found practical solutions:

Unclear or inconsistent coaching for teachers looking to implement CBE modelsCommit to professional development
Student inability to articulate the competencies highlighted by profile of a graduatePrioritize communication with students about learning goals
Tension between progress-through-mastery and traditional classroom structuresOrganize schedules around competencies, rather than content
Inability of one teacher to meet the individual needs of all students in a classroomInvest in student-centered pedagogies, like project-based learning curricula

The problem-solving strategies identified above can be practiced by individual teachers or school communities. However, to see the full, transformative benefits of competency-based education, states and districts need to be on board. This kind of commitment represents a new set of challenges, but also a new set of opportunities. The Aurora Institute outlines how states and districts can avoid implementation pitfalls through measures like:

  • Credit flexibility
  • Profile of a graduate
  • Modernized assessment systems 
  • CBE aligned pathways across K-12, higher education, career and technical education, and work

Competency-Based Education and the Future of High School

The world that high school students will enter when they graduate is constantly changing. As Angela Daniel, a former instructional strategist at PSI High explained, “Our students’ future is shaping up to be a place where learning how to learn will be the ultimate skill they’ll need to master. That’s why it’s time we shift the power dynamic and give students a proper seat at the table in their own education.”

Competency-based education puts the emphasis on student learning, to make sure that every student leaves high school with the skills and knowledge they need to meet future challenges. Making high school sustainable for the future means investing in academic systems that prioritize equitable, meaningful learning experiences for all students. Competency-based education answers that need, with learning that is flexible, personal, and empowers every student to pursue their dreams. 

Learn more about competency-based approaches and more by diving into these profiles of XQ schools and partners: xqstaging.wpengine.com/schools.