Competency-Based Education: Benefits, Challenges, and Opportunities

The concept of competency-based education (CBE) is not new. In fact, its foundation is also a primary tenet of education: Students must demonstrate content knowledge and skill competency at one level before progressing to the next. The overall goals of CBE are familiar—student agency and achievement are at the heart of them; it is simply CBE’s process that differs from traditional education.

Benefits of Competency-Based Education 

Any teacher knows that a key challenge to educators is the fact that each student in a class will have different levels of understanding and skill at any given time. In a traditional system, this problem is exacerbated by the practice of passing students who have not demonstrated competence—a student who receives a B has earned a passing grade but demonstrated only partial competence. By contrast, CBE students do not progress until they demonstrate a competent understanding of the content, not a partial understanding. This minimizes the problem of students in one class working at differing levels.

CBE’s focus on competency necessitates a greater number and variety of assessment opportunities for students; however, this does not translate to more testing. Students can gauge their readiness for assessment and design assessments that play to their strengths. Finally, because evidence captured from the assessments is used in Marzano’s CBE system to decide what a learner needs next, they aren’t punished for early misconceptions.

CBE’s focus on competency also necessitates the use of proficiency scales that are based on a cogent set of learning goals. Defining learning goals and using proficiency scales for assessment allows teachers to pinpoint areas of struggle and provide feedback to students and families.

While challenging students to think in new and interesting ways and being responsive to ensure they do are benefits of CBE, this approach also encourages student accountability and engagement. Students in a Marzano Academy are asked to design and schedule as many assessments as necessary to reach competency at a level of challenge that works for them. Students who design assessments and track progress are often better able to set and achieve academic goals.

CBE also allows for increased flexibility to meet systemic and individual needs. For example, individual students can progress through different subject area levels at different times and remain with peers. At the same time, schools and districts can offer online and/or asynchronous learning opportunities and programs without sacrificing cognitive complexity.

Challenges of Competency-Based Education 

Although CBE shares the same goals as traditional education models, Marzano’s CBE process is fundamentally different. One teacher dedicated to CBE can make a difference, but the larger the CBE community, the better the learning results will be. Making this shift requires personal investment, whether the investor is a single teacher or an entire district. It is best to consider getting and keeping buy-in from the school’s faculty, district, and community as an ongoing process.

CBE Opportunities

The Marzano CBE model seeks to improve student achievement by making it the primary focus of academic progression. The model’s flexibility meets the demands of a changing education landscape; CBE is well suited to in-person, online, or hybrid programs, and it can effectively be adapted in the event of local, national, or even global crises.