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Aurora Institute

Connecting the CBE Design Principles with a Defensible Body of Evidence

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Karin Hess

Issue(s): Rethink Instruction, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

Fully embracing the seven design principles of competency-based education (CBE) requires dramatic shifts in the way schools think about designing, supporting, tracking, and reporting student learning. My last blog post introduced a new set of guiding principles for competency-based schools working to build an equitable and defensible body of evidence. This post illustrates how CBE design provides a lens for collecting defensible evidence.

Students in a digital photography class create fake ice cream for a photo shoot.
Photo by Allison Shelley

The Guiding Principles of the IMPACT Framework

As a refresher from post one, in a new handbook for the professional learning community (PLC) teams with my co-authors Jon Vander Els and Brian Stack, we use the acronym IMPACT to explain the principles for building a body of evidence. A defensible body of evidence should illuminate deep learning, using multiple sources and student-centered pedagogies, promoting assessment practices and collective actions that are transparent to all members of the learning community.

Connecting the CBE Design Principles with a Defensible Body of Evidence

CBE Design Principle 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.

Student empowerment is exemplified through practices that foster student agency and build metacognition skills. Students are actively engaged in their own learning processes and empowered to take ownership of their learning pathways. They are encouraged to reflect on their learning, assess individual and group progress, and set meaningful personal goals. Self-reflection and goal setting enable students to develop a deeper understanding not only of academic learning but of themselves as learners.

Students are encouraged to embrace a growth mindset, viewing challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. This mindset cultivates resilience, perseverance, and a willingness to take intellectual risks, creating fertile ground for students to explore their full potential and expand their personal interests and capabilities. 

A defensible body of evidence reflects the many ways students have taken ownership in decision making and goal setting, co-created learning experiences with peers and adults, and ultimately, produced evidence of deeper learning through a variety of final products and self-reflection processes.

CBE Design Principle 2:  Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.

A strong emphasis on balanced assessment practices ensures that student learning is rigorous, strategically supported, and evaluated using a combination of formative assessment practices and high-quality performance-based assessments. Professional learning community (PLC) teams collaboratively develop and validate assessments aligned with intended competencies, enabling educators to assess skills and concepts through a diverse range of methods and higher levels of cognitive demand. These collective actions cultivate a shared understanding of proficiency among the teaching staff, encouraging educators to continually refine their instructional methods and assessment strategies to enhance student achievement.

Decisions about what is included in a defensible body of evidence are made based on using a variety of assessment tools and formats. Assessment evidence from both products and learning processes yields a more comprehensive picture of student learning. 

CBE Design Principle 3: Students receive timely, differentiated support based upon their individual learning needs.
Student with notebook in garden
Photo by Allison Shelley

Ensuring that every student has equal access to a high-quality education means guaranteeing that all students receive regular, timely, and differentiated support tailored to their unique needs so that every student can reach their full potential. Differentiated support can include formal, district- or school-level programs to support struggling learners (e.g., Response to Intervention/RtI, Multi-Tiered System of Supports/MTSS) or extend learner strengths and interests (e.g., after-school enrichment or internships), as well as day-to-day planning decisions that happen at the classroom level to scaffold or extend learning. 

Support systems are designed to closely monitor the pace and progress of each student throughout their learning journey, allowing educators to collaboratively identify areas of strength and challenge and engage students in documenting their individual successes. When students can see concrete evidence that they are making progress, they are more motivated to invest themselves in learning. Incremental successes lead to future successes.

Proficiency-based decisions using a defensible body of evidence require teams of educators to collectively engage in ongoing discussions and professional development activities to enhance their understanding of using student work analysis to determine the next steps for learning. By leveraging their collective expertise and knowledge, PLC teams identify and implement approaches that meet the diverse needs of students so that each child has the opportunity to learn and demonstrate the ability to apply their learning in complex, authentic tasks aligned with rigorous expectations. Simply put, a defensible body of evidence will reflect whether or not students are successful in their learning. When students are not learning, educators must examine and shift or enhance current practices.

CBE Design Principle 4: Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.

In competency-based schools, policy language is carefully crafted to support a model that allows students to advance academically based on proficient demonstration of skills, knowledge, and dispositions regardless of grade level or specific grade-level standards. This approach recognizes that students learn at different paces and ensures that all students are appropriately challenged and supported along their academic journeys. PLC teams play a crucial role in monitoring student progress by developing a series of assessment checkpoints that elicit evidence of increasing complexity in preparation for larger culminating assessment tasks demonstrating proficiency. Hess, Colby, and Joseph (2020) suggest creating learning pathways, or “performance scales” linked to a series of learning targets aligned with a demonstration of proficiency. The competency-based scales are then used to design formative and summative assessments. By regularly tracking incremental progress and evaluating individual performance along the way, teachers can “meet students where they are” to determine whether they are ready to move on to more advanced material or if additional support is needed. 

Proficiency-based decisions using a defensible body of evidence require that students are not simply evaluated based on the same assessments given to every student at the same time and “averaged” into a grade. A comprehensive collection of evidence reflects a student’s current level of understanding, challenges they have overcome, and the ability to successfully transfer knowledge and skills to new situations. Students build their bodies of evidence using work samples from some common assessments and some optional or customized assessments that demonstrate learning (e.g., performance-based assessments, and reflective essays).

CBE Design Principle 5: Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.

Competency-based schools prioritize the continuous instruction and assessment of skills and dispositions, ensuring that demonstrating proficiency goes beyond rote memorization and encompasses the application and transfer of learning to real-world or authentic contexts. Students are encouraged to tap into their creativity and utilize diverse resources to set goals for learning, both in and out of the traditional classroom setting. Allowing students to leverage their unique backgrounds, interests, and passions fosters a sense of ownership and relevance. A personalized approach prepares students for success in higher education and future careers, equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and flexibility necessary to thrive outside of school.

Fourth graders work together to plan life for their “colony” during a class activity focused on colonial America.
Photo by Allison Shelley

A defensible body of evidence reflects the ways students have had input into planning their learning pathways with relevant learning activities that meet proficiency-based guidelines, be it taking a course in community college, working with a mentor, or developing and excelling in a skill not part of the regular school curriculum (e.g., advanced levels of fine arts or sports). 

CBE Design Principle 6: Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.

An equitable culture is characterized by a shared vision and belief that every student is capable of achieving rigorous learning expectations. This permeates every aspect of the school environment, creating an atmosphere nurturing inclusivity and empowerment. Within this culture, transparency is a key element. Learning outcomes are clearly communicated and readily accessible to students, educators, and parents alike. Transparency ensures that everyone involved in supporting the educational process is aware of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions students are expected to develop and apply both in and outside of school. 

Pedagogy is grounded in the most recent cognitive scientific research about learning and engagement, enabling educators to employ evidence-based instructional practices. Pedagogical approaches prioritize active engagement and achieving deeper levels of understanding through critical and creative thinking, and problem-solving. Actionable feedback is a crucial component of the pedagogical framework, ensuring that students learn how to receive and offer constructive guidance to enhance their learning and maximize their potential.

A defensible body of evidence reflects performance-based assessments, when students are constructing meaning by doing, demonstrating, investigating, or creating. All evidence does not look the same for each student; however, all evidence is clearly aligned with agreed-upon learning expectations for every student (e.g., Profile of a Learner, academic or personal competencies). Evidence comes from tasks completed individually and tasks completed with others, such as when collaboration skills are assessed during project-based learning/PBL. When monitoring progress or determining grades, evidence from personal reflections and self-assessments is seen as adding value to evidence collected from other assessments (e.g., course- or project-related).

CBE Design Principle 7: Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

Rigorous expectations for learning encompass “bundles” of prioritized academic standards that can be integrated with essential dispositions (e.g., collaboration, critical and creative thinking, or self-direction skills) in performance-based assessments. Rigor is not simply defined as learning harder or more content. Rather, it encompasses complex tasks requiring deeper levels of understanding and engagement.  Learning activities are mapped as progressions towards completion of assessment tasks that are more complex than what is described or assessed in a single standard (e.g., projects, presentations, or reflective essays). Rigorous learning expectations cannot be completed in a short time frame or simply assessed with a paper-and-pencil test. Rigorous assessment tasks uncover what students think and can apply, not what they have memorized.

A defensible body of evidence reflects rigorous, meaningful learning as described in a school’s stated expectations. Students are given guidance to select and provide a well-rounded and substantiated showcase of learning that is authentically assessed and valued by the school community.

This is complex and meaningful work. The good news is that the IMPACT principles are flexible and rigorous enough to support each learning community’s vision for student-centered learning. 

Learn More 

Photo of Karin HessKarin Hess, author of numerous books and the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrices, is a former classroom teacher and school administrator now providing support to CBE schools. Visit Karin’s website at


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