Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Over-Tested and Under-Prepared

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bob Sornson

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

Over-Tested and Under-PreparedIn December, Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools by Bob Sornson will be released by Routledge. Bob has shared an excerpt of the book from the chapter on Personalized Learning and Competency.

A competency based learning system begins with the premise that we truly want each student to succeed. Rather than letting the pacing guide dictate the delivery of instruction, students move ahead toward crucial learning outcomes upon demonstrating the key learning milestones along the path to competency. Students will have as many learning opportunities as they need to develop these crucial skills, and each student is guaranteed to have the support needed to continue learning at their own pace as they progress toward crucial outcomes.

This learner centered model is a significant departure from the more is better, test it harder, winners and losers system we have created in most of our schools. Delivering one-size-fits-all instruction and then sorting out a small percentage of successful learners no longer meets the needs of our society. With a better understanding of how kids learn, and with the information and technology systems that are now available, we can choose to track progress toward crucial outcomes and develop thoughtful pathways to mastery of the skills needed for learning and workplace success.

Much of this is just the application of common sense. In the non-school parts of our lives, whenever a learning goal has been identified as “crucial” we try hard to develop personalized competency based learning experiences for our children. When teaching a young child to throw and catch, we refuse to follow a pacing guide. Instead we take the time to play, ensure high rates of success, and gradually increase challenge without causing frustration and disengagement. When teaching a teenager to drive a car, wise parents take all the necessary time to practice driving in the school parking lot before moving to the side roads, and all the time needed on the side roads before moving to the main roads, and all the time needed on main roads before moving to the expressways, and all the time needed driving during good weather conditions until allowing your child to drive in more difficult weather.

No rational adult would throw a small hard ball at a child who is not fully able to catch it. Why then does math instruction in most schools consistently throw hardballs at kids who aren’t ready?


Math instruction is among the conspicuous failures of US schools. It is a classic example of too much content, delivered too fast using a rigid pacing process, and advancing students to higher levels of learning without the deep understanding of fundamental concepts and skills needed for long-term success. Consider these kindergarten math skills which are crucial for understanding higher level math concepts:

  • Has one-to-one correspondence for numbers 1-30
  • Understands combinations to 10
  • Recognizes number groups (2 to 10) without counting

One-to-one correspondence is the ability to count concrete objects or movements with accuracy. Some children can say the numerals in sequence, but do not yet have the connection to associate “three” with 3 button, “four” with 4 buttons, etc. Lacking one-to-one correspondence children might say a number without really understanding its value.  


Understanding combinations to 10 includes the ability to use one-to-one correspondence to show you “four buttons”, then add “two buttons” and quickly figure out that now there are “six buttons”. Using real objects or movements they can demonstrate any combination of numbers adding up to 10 or less.  


Recognizing number groups (2 to 10) without counting is the ability to look at a domino, or a die, or any pattern of dots, beads, chairs, etc. and quickly name the value. This skill is sometimes called “subitizing”, and assumes some understanding of both one-to-one correspondence and combinations.


In a personalized learning kindergarten environment, children would be carefully monitored for the development of these crucial math skills. Instruction would be matched to the child’s readiness, so that some children might practice counting objects, while other children are working combinations. Some children would likely develop every one of these skills by January, while others would need hands-on and movement based activities for these skills until April or May. Only when a child can perform a skill easily, with a high rate of success, using a variety of learning materials, would they be considered competent.

Each child would be given as much time as needed and as much differentiated learning practice as needed for these essential learning outcomes, until competency is well established. But classroom instruction might also include lessons that “introduce, cover, or explore” additional content including measurement, estimation, equations, sets, and many other topics that can be enjoyed in small groups, centers, or whole group settings. Instruction becomes a blend of exploration activities that build a general understanding of math, along with carefully designed and differentiated instruction aimed toward competency in the specifically designated essential learning outcomes.

In a curriculum-driven kindergarten learning environment, all children would be given the same lesson on the same day in the same way. Early in the year, maybe even from the first day, math instruction would be delivered using worksheets, without access to the touching, moving, feeling experiences which are integral to understanding these basic skills. Students would be encouraged to memorize facts they do not understand, or follow a series of steps to get an answer they can only hope might be right. Many of these students would move on to higher grades lacking number sense, not really understanding combination or number values.

If math learning outcomes are important to a child’s future (and they are), some skills deserve the time, instruction, and attention to help every child develop competency. Throwing math hardballs at young children creates frustrated math phobic students who will disengage from math learning for life. American millennials, tied for last place among the 22 countries evaluated in the OECD Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (ETS, 2015) in math and problem solving, give evidence of the poor outcomes associated with curriculum-driven math instruction.

Competency based learning challenges many of the traditional practices of our schools:

  • CBL suggests that instruction be designed to respond to specific student learning needs and support student progress toward clearly defined learning outcomes.
  • The competency model requires a capacity for differentiation, allowing students to learn in different ways, and giving all the time needed for the development of proficiency for crucial skills.
  • CBL requires the articulation of a clear sequence of learning objectives which lead to the desired outcomes, and a plan for on-going assessment of progress.
In the competency model, students are not passed along with significant gaps in understanding which cause them to fall further and further behind. For the identified crucial learning outcomes, instruction is designed to match the developmental readiness of the students, so that they are engaged and challenged but not frustrated. Students advance upon mastery to higher levels of skill and challenge.


Competency-based approaches are typically designed around five key elements (CompetencyWorks, 2014):

  1. Students advance upon mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Personalized learning leading to competency is in evidence when a high-quality piano teacher carefully observes her student, challenges her to improve by giving her the assignment to learn a beautiful piece of music which is within her ability range, offers timely but not overwhelming suggestions for pacing and hand position, and gives her all the time needed to learn the music and be ready for a successful performance.

Learning is personalized when a computer tech student studies for a test, and comes up short, is given immediate feedback on the answers that were incorrect and the opportunity to study some more and take the test again as soon as he is ready.

Personalized learning is built into the structure of quality digital math and reading programs. A clearly defined sequence of skills leads to competency. Essential steps in the sequence cannot be hurried through or avoided. At each step in the sequence of skills, competency must be demonstrated, and then a student moves forward to the next tier of instruction. The Khan Academy is a well-designed example of this structure which is built with competency as the goal for each student.

A preschool to grade three competency based math system (Sornson, 2014) identifies a competency framework for the early childhood years, including a small set of target math outcomes for each grade. Teachers are encouraged to offer a rich and interesting curriculum filled with activities and projects, while carefully monitoring progress toward this set of crucial outcomes. Some children may need to work on skills from the previous grade level. Others will be working at grade level, and still others will be working on skills from a more advanced level. Proficiency for each crucial skill will only be noted when a student has demonstrated deep understanding, over a period of time, using a variety of learning materials to ensure both understanding and application.

A personalized graduate school program identifies the crucial minimum skills and levels for competency in your field of study, assesses student skill levels, with the help of a mentor designs plans for learning which can include courses, work experiences, independent learning experiences, on-line courses, apprenticeships and other experiences, and then carefully monitors progress toward competency. Some students progress faster than others, and only when competency has been demonstrated for each crucial outcome is the degree awarded.

Personalized learning is in evidence on the job as employees work to attain new skills, are given both written and real life assessments, and develop a personal portfolio of skills that are valuable to the employer and offer opportunities for advancement.

A competency structure values learning over seat time. Accumulated Carnegie units or CEUs are not the coin of the realm in a competency based learning model. Rather, deep learning and the capacity to apply information and skills are the valued outcomes of competency based learning. A competency structure gives students the time they need to develop a crucial skill or concept. Six weeks may not be enough for some. Other students may be ready to move on more quickly. Lack of competency after the specified time for a course is not a life sentence. Within a competency model of instruction, critical skills are given the necessary time to develop.

A competency-based system is designed to help every student become proficient in clearly defined essential outcomes, and each of the steps leading to those outcomes. Instruction is designed so that students are in their optimal developmental zone, so that they are challenged but not pushed into frustration and disengagement. In a competency based learning system students are not passed along from grade to grade with significant gaps in understanding, skill and application.

In a proficiency system, failure or poor performance may be part of the student’s learning curve, but it is not an outcome.
– Proficiency-Based Instruction and Assessment (2009) Oregon Education Roundtable


Crucial learning outcomes warrant personalized competency based learning. When coverage, enrichment, exposure, or an overview are not enough, competency based learning provides the path to achieving these outcomes. We want our children to develop competency before getting a driver’s license because basic driving skills are crucial to their survival. Doctors, astronauts, electricians, and computer techs go through a competency based learning program to assure that every essential skill has been fully developed so that they have the expertise needed for success.

Competency based learning works best when there are clearly defined learning objectives, a step by step plan for developing those skills, a careful assessment of the learner’s skills and readiness, instruction at the student’s developmental level, continued monitoring of progress, and instruction adjusted to her changing levels of skill until competency is achieved.

Every parent teaching their child to ride a bike knows how to design a personalized learning program leading to competency. It may take a year of practice before the training wheels come off. There may be a prolonged period in which you run alongside the bike to steady it as needed. There may even be a bump or bruise along the way, but with patience, your child learns to ride independently with confidence and skill.

You can find Over-Tested and Under-Prepared at the following sites:

Bob Sornson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. His implementation of programs and strategies for early learning success, the Early Learning Success Initiative, serves as a model for districts around the country. He is committed to the belief that practically every child can have a successful early learning experience. Dr. Sornson can be contacted at [email protected].