Four Steps to Create Quality Assessments in Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) programs are becoming an increasingly popular alternate route to a higher education credential. CBE is appealing because students can progress at their own pace, as long as they demonstrate mastery of competencies. Unlike traditional higher education models where credit is awarded for seat time, demonstrated mastery is the coin of the realm in CBE. It all sounds quite intuitive, as long as we share a common understanding of the meaning of “mastery.” Put simply, the credibility of CBE credentials – and therefore the viability of CBE programs – rests on the quality of the assessments used to measure competencies and differentiate those who have achieved mastery from those who have not.

Best practices in CBE assessment is the topic of our latest paper. In it, we examine the current state of CBE programs and assessments relative to industry best practices. Our review uncovered some strengths and some areas in need of development. First, it seems CBE programs have dedicated substantial energy to defining the competencies and developing the competency frameworks upon which their degree programs are based. This is the right place to begin, and CBE programs are off to a good start; clearly defined competencies are the foundation of any solid assessment program. The next steps should involve (1) explicitly linking the assessment tasks to the competency frameworks and (2) relating assessment performance with other relevant outcomes. Let’s get more specific: here are the four steps we would like to see CBE programs take, in order to build reliable and valid assessment programs and to prove the value of their credentials.

  1. Clearly define your competencies and gather evidence that your assessments fully measure those competencies. Most programs have defined their competencies, but fewer have explicitly documented how assessment activities measure each of those competencies. If the competency involves problem solving, for example, how does each assessment activity require problem solving in order to be completed successfully? What behaviors during an assessment provide evidence of competence in problem solving? Explicit links between competencies, tasks, and evidence will generate transparent and valid assessments.
  2. Conduct research to relate CBE assessments to other assessments measuring similar competencies and to future outcomes that your assessments are designed to predict. This is an important step in validating the claims made by CBE programs about the knowledge, skills, and abilities their students possess. For example, students who demonstrate high levels of problem-solving ability on one assessment should do similarly well on different assessments that measure the same trait. Likewise, students who score well on a CBE problem-solving assessment should perform well in future work tasks requiring problem solving.
  3. Use the results of research studies when setting your initial competency thresholds. Every CBE assessment has a score point that separates masters from non-masters or that divides students into multiple performance levels. CBE programs should use data to inform those thresholds. Passing standards should not be set so high that they hold students back unnecessarily nor so low that students are passed on without having grasped the skills they’ll need for later success.
  4. Continue to gather and report validity evidence for your CBE assessments and competency thresholds, including your students’ future outcomes relative to comparison groups. CBE programs are in business to give their students the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to be successful in the future. It follows that CBE programs should track their students’ later outcomes and estimate the value-add of a competency-based degree path. For CBE programs to be viewed as an option equal to traditional programs, students and employers need to know that CBE graduates possess the same knowledge and skills as comparable traditional graduates and that CBE graduates are just as likely to succeed in the labor market. Collecting these data will take infrastructure, planning, and time. But evaluating the efficacy of the CBE model is the only way to support these programs’ continued growth.


Read about more research from Katie McClarty and Matt Gaertner at the Research & Innovation Network website. 

American Enterprise Institute held a great panel discussion examining competency-based education. Watch the video as Katie and Matt explain their research alongside other academic researchers.