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REL Central Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness: Competency-Based Education

September 2017


What does the research say about competency-based learning?


Following an established REL Central research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The resources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response, and we offer them only for your reference. Also, we compiled the references from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Brodersen, R. M., & Randel, B. (2017). Measuring student progress and teachers’ assessment of student knowledge in a competency-based education system (REL 2017–238). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central. Retrieved from

From the key findings:

“This report examines the academic progress of elementary and middle school students enrolled in competency-based education in one Colorado district. In competency-based education, students are promoted to the next performance level once their teacher determines that they have demonstrated mastery of all the learning targets for a course. The study found that:

  • A majority of students completed their math and reading performance levels in approximately one academic year, but 43–47 percent of the students who were behind their traditional grade levels completed their performance levels in three or fewer quarters, less time than it would take in a traditional education system.
  • Teachers’ assessments of student competencies were only weakly related to student math and reading achievement on the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the state’s standardized test.”

Brodersen, R. M., Yanoski, D., Mason, K., Apthorp, H., & Piscatelli, J. (2016). Overview of selected state policies and supports related to K–12 competency-based education (REL 2017–249). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central. Retrieved from

From the summary:

“Many states, including those in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Central Region, have revised or are considering revising their policies to align more with competency-based education and other innovative education practices (National Governors Association, 2012). Education leaders in the REL Central Region are interested in learning about policies that affect implementation of competency-based education by understanding policies already in place in their state and learning about the policies of states further ahead in implementation.

To help meet this need, this report summarizes the laws and regulations of the seven states in the REL Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming), as well as the policies of five states outside the region identified as being advanced in aligning their policies to support competency-based education (Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon). This scan of state policies also categorizes the different types of supports these 12 states have provided to intentionally support competency-based education.”

Haynes, E., Zeiser, K., Surr, W., Hauser, A., Clymer, L., Walston, J., ... Yang, R. (2016). Looking under the hood of competency-based education: The relationship between competency-based education practices and students’ learning skills, behaviors, and dispositions. Quincy, MA: Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This study takes a closer look at how schools implement competency-based education, and examines how ninth grade students’ experiences of competency-based education practices are related to these ‘learning capacities,’ or the skills, behaviors, and dispositions that students need to learn effectively. Through a careful analysis of competency-based education in a group of high schools in three states, researchers sought to understand which competency-based education practices, if any, are associated with positive changes in students’ learning capacities during their first year of high school.”

Le, C., Wolfe, R. E., & Steinberg, A. (2014). The past and the promise: Today’s competency education movement. Students at the center: Competency education research series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“In this paper, we explore several essential questions about today’s competency education reforms. Our intent is to lay a foundation for assessing the potential of competency based approaches, as they currently exist and as they could eventually evolve. We believe that a reorganization of schooling is long overdue and that the reforms explored in this paper may have the potential to help narrow achievement gaps and better prepare all young people for life after graduation.”

Lewis, M. W., Eden, R., Garber, C., Rudnick, M., Santibañez, L., & Tsai, T. (2014). Equity in competency education: Realizing the potential, overcoming the obstacles. Students at the center: Competency education research series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“This paper examines equity concerns in competency education through the lens of family income. There is no shortage of evidence of present and past disparities in educational achievement–ranging from standardized test scores to high school graduation rates–between students from lower-income and higher-income backgrounds. Specifically, we highlight three areas in which students from lower-income families may experience disadvantages compared to higher-income families that competency education could exacerbate, potentially leading to inequitable learning opportunities as well as outcomes.”

Ryan, S., & Cox, J. D. (2016). Guide to the competency-based learning survey for students (REL 2016–165). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Retrieved from

From the summary:

“Many states are moving away from approaches that base student advancement on credits and ‘seat time’ toward competency-based learning approaches that provide schools with the flexibility to link a student’s advancement to mastery of content. Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands, in partnership with the Northeast College and Career Readiness Research Alliance, has developed a new survey–the Competency-based Learning Survey for Students–to help high schools and school districts collect data on student experiences with competency-based learning. Policymakers and practitioners need this information to improve implementation of and communication about competency-based learning with students.

The survey is designed to be administered to students attending high schools in which competency-based learning is being implemented. It collects information on students’ beliefs about, exposure to, and understanding of key elements of competency-based learning. These elements include instructional practices that allow students to progress through demonstration of mastery, receive personalized instruction and learning opportunities, demonstrate mastery through flexible assessment, and develop specific skills and dispositions that may be especially critical under competency-based learning.”

Scheopner Torres, A., Brett, J., & Cox, J. (2015). Competency-based learning: Definitions, policies, and implementation. Waltham, MA: Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands at Educational Development Center. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“The purpose of this study was to examine how competency-based learning (CBL) is defined across states in the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands region and gain insight into barriers and facilitators to implementation of this reform. Many states in the region have started to consider and implement competency-based learning as a secondary school reform to increase graduation rates and ensure that students have the skills and knowledge for postsecondary success. Under competency-based approaches, students demonstrate mastery of a defined set of standards or competencies to earn credit toward graduation rather than completing credit requirements based on time spent in class. To master the learning standards or competencies, students are given support and additional time as needed. A review of state-level policies in each of the seven states in the region was conducted along with interviews with a sample of 20 administrators in three states (6 state-level administrators, 11 district-level administrators, and 3 school-level administrators) to gain an understanding of the range of state- and district-level policies in the region on this reform and the perceived barriers and facilitators for implementing competency-based learning. Interviews were conducted with nine administrators from Maine, four from Massachusetts, and seven from Rhode Island.”

Sturgis, C. (2015). Implementing competency education in K–12 systems: Insights from local leaders (Issue brief). Vienna, VA: International Association for K–12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“This paper seeks to map out the terrain of the district implementation strategies being used to convert traditional systems into personalized, competency-based ones. Although not a detailed guide, the hope is that the discussion offered here will prepare you to begin the transformational process. Four stages of implementation are proposed in this paper: 1) Ramping Up for Transformation, 2) Designing the Infrastructure for Learning, 3) Transitioning to a Competency- Based System, and 4) Embracing Continuous Improvement and Innovation. Schools and their district offices work in partnership during this transformation, which means implementation issues at both levels will be discussed.”

Sturgis, C., & Patrick, S. (2010). When failure is not an option: Designing competency-based pathways for next generation learning. Vienna, VA: International Association for K–12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This exploration into competency-based innovation at the school, district, and state levels suggests that competency-based pathways are a re-engineering of this nation’s education system around learning–a re-engineering designed for success in which failure is no longer an option.

Competency-based approaches build upon standards reforms, offering a new value proposition for the education system. Frequently, competency-based policy is described as simply flexibility in awarding credit or defined as an alternative to the Carnegie unit. Yet, this does not capture the depth of the transformation of the education system from a time-based system to a learning-based system. Competency-based approaches are being used at all ages from elementary school to graduate school level, focusing the attention of teachers, students, parents, and the broader community on students mastering measurable learning topics. . . .

The following discussion draws on interviews and site visits with innovators and the limited literature that has been developed on the topic of competency-based approaches. The first section introduces a working definition for competency-based pathways that hopefully will be the beginning of creating consensus on the characteristics of a high-quality approach to guide policy. The second section explores the driving forces behind competency-based innovations and implementation issues. The last section highlights a number of challenges facing states and districts as they explore competency-based approaches.

This paper has been designed to generate a deeper understanding, as it is critically important that competency-based pathways be implemented effectively with a vigilant focus on student learning.”

Wolfe, R. E. (2012). Aligning competencies to rigorous standards for off-track youth: A case study of Boston Day and Evening Academy. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the website:

“For over 17 years, Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) has served a population of young people often left behind: those who are off track to high school graduation or who have dropped out altogether. Through its competency-based approach, BDEA has tackled one of the toughest education conundrums of our time: how to recover low-skilled students two or more years off track to graduation, provide them a rich and rigorous education aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and graduate them quickly and college ready.

This report uses BDEA as a model to describe the process of aligning competency-based pathways for off-track youth with rigorous standards. It details how BDEA designs its competencies for struggling students. In addition to a narrative of the process, the brief contains a glossary of terms and numerous examples, tools, and resources to assist educators tackling this work for their schools.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Competency-Based Education Network:

From the website:

“The Competency-Based Education Network is a group of colleges and universities working together to address shared challenges to designing, developing and scaling competency-based degree programs.”


From the website:

“Across our country, schools, districts and states are investing in innovations that re-design our education system around competency education. Rejecting the time-based system that reproduces inequities and low achievement, these innovators are designing a system in which student success is the only option. This is no easy task and we need to make sure we are learning from each other as much as possible.

CompetencyWorks is a new online resource to provide information and knowledge about competency education through a website, a blog filled with practitioner knowledge and policy advancements, and a wiki to make it easy to get examples of materials CompetencyWorks provides resources for new innovators and early adopters so that they can rapidly learn about past mistakes, lessons learned, and different approaches to inform their work.”

RAND Education, Competency-Based Education:

From the website:

“RAND has been working to grow the evidence base around competency-based education by evaluating pilot programs in the K–12 sector to better understand student outcomes following exposure to this type of instruction. In addition, this research has comprised exploration into some of the equity challenges that competency-based education may introduce or exacerbate.”


Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Competency-based learning AND K–12 education

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published between 2010 and 2017 were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC, followed by Google Scholar and Google.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) currency of available data; (b) study types–randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, etc.; (c) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected samples, etc.), study duration, and so forth.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.