Showing What Students Know in a Competency-Based Classroom

Competency-based education lets student progress through a curriculum at their own pace. Here are some tips from two CBE educators for you to get started.

By Team XQ

Part of the challenge of rethinking high school is the necessity of translating innovative teaching strategies to traditional methods of recording student progress. Take competency-based education, for example. In this approach, the focus is on a student’s progress through a curriculum at their own pace. Instead of a ceaseless march through their academic materials, the central goal is that they learn—or master—the skills they’re being taught. Knowledge is meant to be cumulatively attained, instead of memorized by rote and forgotten. Designed for flexibility, competency-based education also allows teachers to adapt to the unique needs of their individual students, from those who need a bit more time to conquer a skill, to those who are ready to move ahead at a faster clip. 

Since competency-based education more frequently relies on progress reports rather than report cards, we spoke to two XQ educators on how they translate mastery to traditional grades in their classrooms. 


Advice from Deion Jordan, Director of Competencies, Crosstown High


Competencies should include explicit, measurable, and transferable learning objectives that empower students. Students should receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.


The reporting system should reflect this principle by reporting progress on measurement topics (e.g., cognitive and metacognitive skills). The progress report is an indication of where the student is currently performing. It is not the students’ final grade.

DETERMINE A METHOD FOR REPORTING AND TRANSLATING STUDENT PROGRESS and pace across disciplines and levels so that students do not fall behind and risk not graduating on time. The performance level is an indication of the student’s performance towards mastery of competencies.

DETERMINE A SPECIFIC AND INDEPENDENT SYSTEM for translating mastery for traditional grades. Students must demonstrate mastery of all required competencies to earn credit or graduate. Students advance once they have demonstrated mastery, and students receive more time, and possibly personalized instruction, to demonstrate mastery if needed (personalized learning, deep knowledge of students, and norming assessment processes).

CONSIDER A STANDARDS-REFERENCED REPORTING SYSTEM. This will allow you to maintain grade levels and overall grades. Students are assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery, usually requiring that students apply their knowledge (including cognitive and metacognitive skills), not just repeat facts.

Advice from Jesse Patrick, Math Teacher, PSI High

START WITH WHY. Competency-based education allows for a greater emphasis on whether the student can demonstrate competency using a unique and student-driven learning path. Assessing students and their progress helps us guide future teaching and provide feedback to better serve our students.

ASSESSMENTS FROM A STUDENT STANDPOINT. When students take tests, they tend to feel nervous, scared or stressed. However, when students take assessments, they should feel calm.

MAKE IT HAPPEN. Although there is no one way how competency-based education looks in a classroom, a key foundation can usually be standards-based instruction. Teachers help students learn a specific set of standards through an individualized educational plan. There are still weekly lessons taught by the teacher on major or especially difficult topics, but all the sub-standards are uniquely assigned and controlled by their teacher.

Scales and rubrics are essential for students to see and understand what the expectations are.