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Aurora Institute

Terminology is important. Definitions are refined as the field matures and expands with new knowledge. We offer the following field-tested definitions to deepen understanding and to help us communicate with clarity.

Assessment Literacy

Assessment literacy is the collection of knowledge and skills associated with appropriate assessment design, implementation, interpretation, and, most importantly, use. A critical aspect of assessment literacy is that educators and leaders know how to create and/or select a variety of assessments to serve different purposes such as improving learning and teaching, grading, program evaluation, and accountability. However, the most important component of assessment literacy is the degree to which educators and others are able to appropriately interpret the data coming from assessments and then take defensible instructional or other actions.


Calibration is a process of adjusting results based on a comparison with a known standard or “calibration weight” in order to allow defensible comparisons of student assessment results; for example, across different entities (e.g., schools, districts, states). In order to define a calibration weight, we need to have something in common, either the same students taking different assessments or different students taking the same assessments. The latter is generally more practical, so common performance tasks have been administered to students in different schools, and district performance assessments serve as a “calibration weight” to evaluate the extent to which teachers in different locales evaluate the quality of student work similarly.


Comparability is defined as the degree to which the results of assessments intended to measure the same learning targets produce the same or similar results.

This involves multiple levels of documentation and evaluation starting from the consistency with which teachers in the same schools evaluate student work similarly and consistently, to the degree to which teachers in different schools and districts evaluate student performances consistently and similarly, and finally the degree to which the results from students taking one set of assessments can be compared to students taking a different set of assessments (such as comparing pilot and non-pilot districts). A determination of “comparable enough” for any type of score linking should be made based on clear documentation for how comparability is determined and that is defensible.

Competency-Based Education

The definition of competency-based education is:

  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.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

A competency-based school or district should implement all seven elements of the definition. Strong implementation also requires policies, pedagogy, structures, and culture that support every student in developing essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions. [Note: this revised definition was published in 2019 to update the 2011 working definition, as the field of K-12 competency-based education is expanding and knowledge is growing. The additions focus on the importance of student agency and the centrality of equity for CBE systems.

Continuum or Learning Continuum

A continuum refers to the set of standards or learning targets along a span of education (for example, K-12 or performance levels 9-12). It is the set of expectations for what students should know and be able to do. However, it does not imply that students need to learn all of the standards in a linear way or be taught them based on their age-based grade level. The student learning trajectory and research on learning progressions should inform instruction.


There are many definitions of curriculum in education. Internationally, the term curriculum, or curriculum frameworks, refers to the high level of knowledge and skills students are expected to learn and describe (i.e., competencies). The curriculum framework may include student learning objectives or learning standards. In the United States, the term curriculum also refers to the resources that teachers use when designing instruction and assessment to support student learning, including: the course syllabi, units and lessons that teachers teach; the assignments and projects given to students; the materials (books, videos, presentations, activities) used in a course, module, or unit; and the assessments used to evaluate student learning and check for understanding.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

First coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1994, culturally responsive teaching is the pedagogical practice of recognizing, exploring, and responding to students’ cultural contexts, references, and experiences. Cultural responsiveness builds upon eight principles:

  1. Communication of High Expectations
  2. Active Teaching Methods
  3. Practitioner as Facilitator
  4. Inclusion of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students
  5. Cultural Sensitivity
  6. Reshaping the Curriculum or Delivery of Services
  7. Student-Controlled Discourse
  8. Small-Group Discourse

The New York City Mastery Collaborative highlights that a competency-based approach can promote cultural responsiveness in the following ways:

  • Transparency: path to success is clear and learning outcomes are relevant to students’ lives and interests. Shared criteria reduce opportunity for implicit bias.
  • Facilitation shifts: refocus the roles of students and teachers to include flexible pacing, inquiry-based, collaborative approach to learning. Students drive their own learning, and teachers coach them.
  • Positive learning identity: growth mindset and active learning build agency and affirm students’ identities as learners (academics, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.)

Deeper Learning

The term deeper learning is often used to describe highly engaging learning experiences in which students apply skills and knowledge and build higher-order skills. The Hewlett Foundation defines deeper learning as six competencies: master core academic content; think critically and solve complex problems; work collaboratively; communicate effectively; learn how to learn, and develop academic mindsets. Deeper learning intersects with competency-based education in multiple ways, including defining the learning outcomes; emphasis on lifelong learning skills such as academic mindset and learning how to learn; and importance of applying skills and knowledge to build competencies.

Educational Equity

There are many definitions of equity in education. CompetencyWorks uses this definition from the National Equity Project: Education equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential. Working towards equity involves:

  1. Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability for success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor;
  2. Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children; and
  3. Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents, and interests that every human possesses.


Equality is related to the principles of fairness and justice. It refers to equal treatment and, in the past, has been used to refer to equal inputs.

Fixed Mindset (See Growth Mindset)

Carol Dweck’s research suggests that students who have adopted a fixed mindset — the belief that they are either “smart” or “dumb” and there is no way to change this — may learn less than they could or learn at a slower rate, while also shying away from challenges (since poor performance might either confirm they can’t learn, if they believe they are “dumb,” or indicate that they are less intelligent than they think, if they believe they are “smart”). Dweck’s findings also suggest that when students with fixed mindsets fail at something, as they inevitably will, they tend to tell themselves they can’t or won’t be able to do it (“I just can’t learn Algebra”), or they make excuses to rationalize the failure (“I would have passed the test if I had had more time to study”). (Adapted from the Glossary of Education Reform

The traditional system of education was developed based upon a fixed mindset and resulted in a belief that part of the K-12 system’s function was to sort students.

Growth Mindset (See Fixed Mindset)

The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Students who embrace growth mindsets — the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere — may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills. Dweck’s work has also shown that a “growth mindset” can be intentionally taught to students. (Adapted from the Glossary of Education Reform

Competency education is grounded in the idea that all students can succeed with the right supports, including learning how to have a growth mindset.

Habits of Work/Habits of Mind

Habits of work and habits of mind are directly related to the ability of students to take ownership of their learning and become self-directed learners. There are a variety of Habits of Work (specific practices or behaviors) and Habits of Mind (skills, perspectives, and orientation) that help students succeed in school or the workplace. Schools tend to focus on a few of the habits of work and mind to help students learn the skills they need to take ownership of their learning.

Higher-Order Skills/Deeper Learning Competencies

Higher-order skills refer to skills needed to apply academic skills and knowledge to real-world problems. The term can refer to the higher levels on Bloom’s or Webb’s taxonomy or to a set of skills such as creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, and an academic or growth mindset.

Learning Progression

Learning progressions are research-based approaches that map how students learn key concepts and skills as described in Achieve’s brief, The Role of Learning Progressions in Competency-Based Pathways.

Learning Sciences

An interdisciplinary field that works to further scientific, humanistic, and critical understanding of learning, as well as to engage in the design and implementation of learning innovations and the improvement of instructional methodologies. Research in the learning sciences traditionally focuses on brain science, cognitive-psychological, social-psychological, cultural-psychological, and critical theoretical foundations of human learning, as well as on the design of learning environments. Put another way, the learning sciences can be defined as the study of how people learn and how different kinds of environments, circumstances, mindsets, and approaches impact learning experiences.

Lifelong Learning Skills

In the paper, Lifelong Learning Skills for College and Career Readiness: Considerations for Education Policy, AIR describes lifelong learning skills as providing “the foundation for learning and working. They broadly support student thinking, self-management, and social interaction, enabling the pursuit of education and career goals.” CompetencyWorks uses the term to capture the skills that enable students to be successful in life, navigating new environments, and managing their own learning. This includes a growth mindset, habits of success, social and emotional skills, metacognitive skills, and higher-order/ deeper learning competencies.


Moderation is a process used to evaluate and improve comparability. The process involves having teachers (or others) work to develop a common understanding of varying levels of quality of student work. Moderation processes are often used as part of calibration, but moderation is a way to evaluate comparability while calibration is the adjustment based on these findings.

Personalized Learning

The Aurora Institute defines personalized learning as “tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests – including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn – to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.” Personalized learning takes into account students’ differing zones of proximal development with regards to academic and cognitive skills, as well as within the physical, emotional, metacognitive, and other domains.

Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey explain in the Personalization vs. Differentiation vs. Individualization (PDI) Chart that personalized learning is learner-centered, whereas the related approaches of differentiation and individualization are teacher-centered. Thus, teachers may use a personalized and differentiated approach to meet students where they are.

Social and Emotional Learning

According to CASEL, “social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” They focus on the development of five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Student Agency

Student agency or student ownership of their education refers to the skills and the level of autonomy that a student has to shape their learning experiences. Schools that want to develop student agency will need strategies to coach students in the lifelong learning skills (growth mindset, meta-cognition, social and emotional learning, and habits of work and learning) and to establish practices that allow students to have choice, voice, opportunity for co-design, and the ability to shape their learning trajectories.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

CAST defines Universal Design for Learning as “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” UDL guides the design of instructional goals, assessments, methods, and materials that can be customized and adjusted to meet individual needs.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

A term developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky to refer to the moment(s) during the learning process that lives between what one can do on one’s own and what one cannot do at all. It is the zone in which guidance and support are needed in order to become independently competent. A personalized approach to learning provides students with access to learning experiences attuned to students’ individual ZPD — which sometimes overlaps with others’, but frequently may not.