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Aurora Institute

Counted or Not, Doing What Counts in Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Eduardo Briceño

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Eduardo Briceño
Eduardo Briceño

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
– William Bruce Cameron (and on a sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office)

Competency-based education comes with the risk that we focus only on those competencies that can easily be measured and overlook other competencies that are also critical for success in today’s and tomorrow’s world. If we’re mindful of what students need and design our competency-based systems accordingly, however, we can make competency-based education all it can be.

How we can get into trouble

In a competency-based system, each learner focuses on knowledge and skills at the right challenge level, just beyond what is known, and progresses to the next level upon mastery rather than based on age or time. This makes a lot of sense. It’s how people learn.

In order for this system to work, there has to be a way to assess mastery prior to progression.  This need often leads us to limit ourselves to teaching competencies that can be assessed through highly structured tests that provide quantifiable measures. Unfortunately, we might then overlook the less quantifiable skills that students also need, such as a growth mindset, self-management, initiative, communication, collaboration, and lifelong learning.

We also get into trouble by over-relying on technology-based assessments. Technology is useful in assessing some competencies, but we also need to recognize what computers can’t do, such as assessing creativity, mindset, self-management, giving and receiving feedback, and other competencies that enable us to be more helpful, generative, and fulfilled human beings. Using computers to teach and assess easy-to-measure competencies frees up teachers and student peers to teach and assess the hard-to-measure ones that are also important.

Counting vs. assessing

It’s hard to teach something that can’t be assessed, especially in a competency-based system. How do we know whether what we’re doing is working? How do we know where students are in their understanding and what they need next?

Fortunately, hard-to-measure 21st century competencies can be assessed, and are assessed all the time. In our workplaces, we have a sense of our colleagues’ collaboration skills, communication skills, creativity, self-management, mindset, initiative, self-growth, vision, and many other important competencies. Yet we don’t go around saying “Kathy, I need to assess your collaboration skills today, can you please do this performance assessment?” We gain a much better sense of Kathy’s collaboration skills, or any other hard-to-measure competency, by working with her than through a pre-packaged or highly structured test that results in a quantifiable measure. By working with Kathy, we gain valuable information that allows us to share thoughts on where she is, how she is most helpful to the team, and what she could do to further increase her contributions and influence, which helps her continue to develop. If we want to prepare students to thrive in work and in life, why not assess and develop these critical competencies as is done in the real world?

If students are engaged in learning activities, which leads to deeper learning, teachers and fellow students can assess these competencies all the time. The teachers we train at Mindset Works understand what a growth mindset is and how it manifests itself, which allows them to assess their own mindset as well as that of their students, their families, and their colleagues, as they go about living, learning, and working together. Being able to assess these competencies in daily life enables us to self-monitor, help one another build awareness and grow, and respond to moments of challenge.

While some 21st century competencies are hard to measure through highly structured, summative assessments, skilled educators can assess these competencies formatively to inform instruction, influence learner mindsets, and prepare their students for the 21st century.

Assessing systems

We must also be able to assess whether the systems we put in place are working as a whole. How do we know, at a systems level, whether our efforts to develop hard-to-measure 21st century competencies are actually successful?

Highly structured assessments are becoming more powerful. A good overview of leading-edge research on assessing hard-to-measure competencies is Measuring 21st Century Competencies by Jim Soland, Laura Hamilton, and Brian Stecher of RAND. There is exciting work being done. Even at the leading edge, however, these assessments don’t yet come near to being able to measure all the competencies that count.

We can’t wait decades or more for traditional assessments to reliably measure competencies like motivation, self-management, and learning-orientation. Fortunately, there are ways, today, to assess whether our systems are developing these competencies in students.

In the report Creating Systems of Assessment for Deeper Learning, David Conley and Linda Darling-Hammond describe systems that can accomplish this goal, involving a continuum of assessments for different purposes. For example, for competencies that can be measured through pencil-and-paper tests, we could use such tests. For competencies that could be measured through performance assessments or by having students interact with virtual agents, we could use those. For harder-to-measure competencies, such as creativity, mindset, communication with peers, learning orientation, and use of learning strategies, assessments could involve real human beings assessing students’ abilities and dispositions. These assessments could involve authentic projects, rubrics, or portfolio-like collections of assignments, which could be integrated into projects that schools use today. They could involve interactions with real people and revisions of work, as is part of performance in the real world.

Some of these assessments may be more expensive to administer, so rather than administering them to all students, we could administer them to a small, randomized sample of students or schools. That would allow us to assess whether the system is working and under what conditions, so that we could adjust accordingly where needed. Teachers could assess all students formatively, while external summative systems assess randomized samples. Colleges and workplaces could also invest more resources into assessing individual students by looking at their projects and portfolios, speaking with them, and having them perform authentic activities. Through these systems, we would, as a society, better assess the human qualities that matter most for personal and professional success.

Doing what counts

Traditional education policy has not encouraged schools to develop students to be effective learners. Instead, standards have focused on teaching students capabilities that are easy to measure through tests, be they facts, procedures, or higher order thinking skills (all of which are important but not sufficient). Yet, in this complex, specialty-driven, and fast-changing world, little is more important than developing students as effective and motivated lifelong learners. And as students develop as learners, they can also learn facts, procedures, higher order thinking skills, and 21st century skills that will prepare them to engage in lifelong creation, contribution, and growth.

Now that we can design more sophisticated assessments that measure some higher order thinking skills, we are expanding the set of competencies that we’re teaching beyond facts and procedures, yet continuing to limit our focus to what can be quantified.

Can we encourage what counts, whether it can be easily counted or not? If policy doesn’t shift fast enough, will we lead our districts, schools, and classrooms to make it happen? As we transition to competency-based systems and deeper learning environments, will we seize the moment, capitalize on this transition period, and design systems that do what counts?



Conley, D.T. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2013). Creating systems of assessment for deeper learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Available at

Soland, Jim, Laura S. Hamilton, and Brian M. Stecher (2013), Measuring 21st-Century Competencies: Guidance for Educators. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation. Available at


Eduardo is the CEO of Mindset Works, which he co-founded with Carol Dweck, Lisa Blackwell and others, to help schools cultivate student ownership of their own learning. With his fellow mindsetters, Eduardo helps schools build learner capacity and success through practices that instill growth mindset beliefs and foundational learning skills in students, teachers and the broader community. Eduardo has spoken at numerous industry conferences, delivered a popular TEDx Talk on mindset, and has been featured in news media such as NPR and Education Week. Eduardo holds MBA and M.A. in Education degrees from Stanford University, and bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Most important, he continues to enjoy lifelong learning every day.