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Aurora Institute

A Growing Body of Research

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

researchThe Northeast College and Career Readiness Research Alliance (NCCRA) at the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands at EDC has kicked off a research group on competency education to help researchers and practitioners collaborate. It’s clear from our conversations that research is needed in three areas – to help inform practice, to support policy development, and to catalyze more interest in research.

We desperately need research, and it is a challenging time to do this research. The term competency education is being used for different things. From what I can tell there are two primary variables: 1) The scope and 2) the definition of mastery.

See below for list of published and upcoming research.

SCOPE varies to the extent of the learning experience: 1) the inclusion of adaptive software such as ALEKS or Khan Academy in classrooms; 2) online credit recovery programs where adaptive software is the primary way instruction is delivered and learning is assessed; 3) proficiency-based classrooms in schools that have not engaged in systemic reform; 4) systemic reforms of districts and schools; and 5) statewide conversion to competency education, which has a different set of issues from those districts and schools converting voluntarily. So a competency-based classroom in a competency-based school where there are going to be daily supports to help students who are not yet proficient is very different from a competency-based classroom in a school that still passes students along with Cs and Ds.

DEFINITION OF MASTERY is based on what we expect for our students: 1) Demonstrating recall and comprehension; 2) Demonstrating the ability to use the skills at the level of analysis or 3) Demonstrating the ability to use the knowledge in new contexts; and 4) Developing those habits, 21st century or the unfortunately named “non-cognitive” skills. The understanding varies a lot across adaptive software, classrooms, schools and districts. So again, comparing the level of mastery available with adaptive software might be very different from mastery that results from completing a challenging project.

Researchers are going to have to create clear definitions as they design their research and evaluation, which means we are going to have to become very astute at understanding the research, what it tells us, and how to use it. Below is the growing research, both completed and anticipated.

Completed research

Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation, University of Maine
A two-part study designed to compile data on the preliminary development, costs, and impacts of standards-based school programs and the progress Maine schools and school districts were making in transitioning to the new education system (with a deadline of the 2017-2018 school year).


Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Thomas Guskey, University of Kentucky

Authored In Search of A Useful Definition of Mastery, published in Education Leadership’s Getting Students to Mastery (2014) on the background of mastery learning, drawing parallels between mastery learning and proficiency-based learning. Guskey also has done substantial research on mastery learning and standards-based grading.

Marzano Research Labs


Upcoming research

American Institutes for Research

  • AIR in partnership with CCSSO will study the implementation and outcomes of competency-based education within high schools participating in CCSSO’s Innovation Lab networks. The study will include two components: 1) Develop, validate and administer surveys for principals, teachers and students about CBE practices; and 2) Examine the relationship between exposure to CBE practices and changes in non-cognitive outcomes during students’ first year of high school. In particular, we will examine whether students in schools that implement CBE with fidelity experience larger gains in non-cognitive outcomes relative to similar students within the same district who do not attend school practicing CBE, and we will examine whether changes in non-cognitive outcomes for students experiencing CBE may be stronger for at-risk students. The proposed study will result in tools for measuring CBE practices, and an increased understanding of CBE practices and their effects on “non-cognitive” student outcomes that are considered critical for college and career readiness.

Applied Research and Program Evaluation at UMASS Donahue Institute

  • Competency-based online courses for recovery in 19 MA high schools with high dropout rates as part of evaluation of the high school graduation initiative (U.S. DOE).

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

  • Preparing report on the investigation for revising the Carnegie Unit for K-12 and higher education (Spring 2014)

College and Career Readiness and Success Center (AIR and American Youth Policy Forum)

  • Preparing state policy brief in collaboration with Great Lakes Equity Center to examine equity considerations and implications for the implementation and scale up of proficiency-based learning.

NCCRA at REL Northeast and Islands at EDC

  • Completing a study examining how proficiency-and competency-based learning is defined across the REL-NEI region as well as barriers and facilitators to implementation. Study includes a policy scan of each of the states in the region as well as interviews. The study is identifying common elements of the reforms and the range of practices for each of the key elements. Report will also look at the needed supports, including communicating to school communities, providing ongoing teacher support, and accessing more research and models. (Early summer 2014)
  • Planning a case studies project on the implementation of proficiency- and competency-based learning in districts that have mature programs. Research questions include: What changes have districts made or plan to make in terms of policy and practice? How do districts that have implemented proficiency- or competency-based learning communicate about this reform with community members? How do districts that have implemented a proficiency- or competency-based system assess student progress? How do districts that have implemented proficiency- or competency-based learning integrate this reform into other local, state and federal initiatives?

Rand Corporation

  •  Preparing a multi-year study looking at interventions in three sites doing proficiency-based education. Data collected has focused on different elements of implementation. Conducting quasi-experimental studies (matched school design) to examine effectiveness of these implementation approaches.

Jobs for the Future
Students at the Center synthesizes and adapts for practice current research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning and deeper learning outcomes. The goal is to strengthen the ability of practitioners and policymakers to engage each student in acquiring the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for success in college, career, and civic life.

  • Producing a series of research papers on proficiency-based learning to build the knowledge base. The first paper seeks to promote a better understanding of the theoretical and historical foundations on which competency-based education is built, and to address the question of what our past experience with competency education tells us about its feasibility and desirability today. It delves into the most recent research on student-centered learning approaches, and the connections to and implications for a competency-based education system. The second paper will explore issues of equity and the potential for unintended consequences, especially when considering issues of scale. The literature and data used will help shed light on whether the effects of CBE are to be expected for all students, or are differentially effective for students from varying backgrounds and attending different kinds of schools.