Question: Is there a difference between standards-referenced grading (SRG) and competency-based education (CBE)?

Answer: The short answer is yes.

Competency-based education (CBE), sometimes referred to as standards-based, is the focus of the Marzano Academies Model of Education. We define CBE as having processes and practices that ensure that learners “demonstrate mastery of the content at one level before they move on to the next level” (Marzano, Kosena and Hubbs, 2022). Learners are challenged at a cognitive level appropriate for their maturity and previous exposure to content. Teachers present the curriculum not based on age but on what the learner is ready to learn. Time is not a factor in making that decision.

Another essential characteristic of CBE is once students have demonstrated proficiency in the content at one level, they move on to the next. A student can be accelerated or be allowed additional time to build a competent understanding of the learning outcome. Doing so ensures learners achieve the concepts and skills necessary for what comes next. Often, a student may be challenged at an accelerated rate in one subject, like math, while needing additional time in another content area, like reading. Teachers use continuous flexible grouping to ensure learners progress through the learning continuum only after they have learned the material by applying the acquired knowledge to demonstrate they understand the concept or can execute the strategy without error.

Marzano Academies believes a successful competency-based system needs to use a standards-referenced reporting system for its internal stakeholders. Those stakeholders discussed in the Blog article Do I Need 1-4 Reporting? are the people responsible for the learner’s growth. Standards-referenced reporting uses clear and measurable goals of the critical needs and requires good assessment practices to produce evidence that teachers can monitor, analyze and document student growth through the learning continuum. At Marzano Academies, we recommend using proficiency scales to provide this clarity of learning outcomes. The Proficiency Scale is a structure created by Dr. Marzano to make the content in standards more transparent for teachers and, more importantly, learners. If the school uses the same structure, learners will know how to interpret what is expected regardless of the teacher.

In a standards-referenced system, a learner does not need to demonstrate a competent understanding of a concept or the ability to execute a strategy without error before moving on in the continuum. Instead, the teacher uses the standards to reference the level of learning a student needs to make, but time and age are still dominant factors in determining what challenge a learner is ready to receive. In other words, the student matriculates through the curriculum based upon grade level and not upon their demonstration of proficiency. A system using standards-referenced practices is an essential step to competency-based. It ensures teachers have defined the critical elements they will teach and assess and then developed clear progressions of what a learner will need to acquire, recall, and apply to demonstrate they understand the concepts or can execute the strategy.

So, the difference is in standards-referenced the primary factor one uses to determine what curriculum will be delivered is the grade level. In competency-based, a school or teacher uses the evidence of learning to decide what comes next for the learner. It could be typical of the grade level, or it can be behind or accelerated.

For more information on how Marzano Academies can support you, your school’s, or your district’s vision of competency-based education, or discuss any of these points further, don’t hesitate to contact us at: bill.zima@marzanoacademies.org or by visiting our website: marzanoacademies.org. We are here to help.

Marzano, R., Kosena, B. and Hubbs, B., 2022. Leading a competency-based elementary school. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.