Inquiry about Competency Based Adult Education


In the 1970s-1990s, adult basic education was a national leader in the U.S. in what is known as competency-based education. This was largely the result of a 1970 study at the University of Texas Austin, the Adult Performance Level project, that identified functional life skills competencies needed by adult learners. Vocational or Occupational Education has for many years, and in many countries, relied on competency-based curriculum and instruction. To a small extent, U.S. higher education, mostly in medical and dental graduate education, and in teacher education, has also used competency-based or performance-based curriculum and instruction approaches.

Now competency-based education is having a resurgence in U.S. higher education. 28 states have at least one competency-based higher education program, mostly at universities and four-year colleges; this is growing, and may soon include more two-year colleges. It is also now found in some K-12 schools .

I wonder if (when) competency-based education will re-emerge in adult basic education, and am looking for early signs of this, or evidence that it never went away. For example, some of you may know that CASAS, the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System  (I think it was originally called the California Adult Student Assessment System) was created in the 1970's and 1980's period of intense Competency-based Adult Education (CBAE) in California. Of course it still exists, and is used in many states.

Are there other examples of CBAE that still exist? Are there competency-based adult basic education instruction programs? Is your program competency-based, or do you work with CBAE programs? Please reply here, or privately to my email below. Thanks.

David J. Rosen



David, thanks for raising this to our consciousness We have a ready to deliver Adult English and Life Skills program. It has six levels of Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, and Grammar and has been correlated  with CASA. 

We are also working hard to re-invent this comprehensive program into an online, interactive, delivery system. We are looking for hands-on help to upload our content to the Learning Management System.



In 2014, the Department of Education launched an experiment in Competency-Based Education (CBE), under the Experimental Sites Initiative.  This was seen, in part, as an opportunity to learn more about Title IV disbursement models designed to encourage student achievement and student success. The CBE experiment provided expansive regulatory waivers and modifications, which have led to requests for guidance from the Department of Education, by both institutions and accrediting agencies.

To that end, the Department of Education has released guidance that will offer support for CBE providers as they implement this experiment.  The Guide can be found here.  By the end of this year, the Department of Education plans to issue an expansion of the current CBE experiment, based on feedback received since 2014, in an effort to expand on issues of completion, affordability and transparency of degrees.

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator

Hi Mike,

From skimming these, It looks like the context for this is guidance for competency-based higher education, not K-12 or adult basic education. It also looks like one of the big issues is figuring out how students in CBHE programs can be eligible for Pell grants. Is that correct?

David J. Rosen

Hi, David -

Your understanding is the same as mine regarding these documents.  While they don't specifically address Competency-Based Adult Education (CBAE), they hopefully suggest a motivation by stakeholders to respond to a growing demand for increased awareness of CBE.  While the focus here is on higher education, better understanding CBHE may also provide an opportunity to look at how CBAE models can be better planned and evaluated, and whether there may be any overlap between the two.  Something to consider until other resources are found that better address the need you're seeing for its expansion in CBAE.




So far I haven't seen any responses about competency-Based Adult Education (CBAE) being used in adult basic skills programs. Does this mean it has disappeared, that it is called something else now (performance-based, mastery, direct assessment instruction or something else), or that no one getting this request knows the answer?

I was really hoping to get some some answers about whether or not adult basic skills/ELL programs are using CBAE models now.

David J. Rosen

I have worked with one adult ed program that has tried to shift the academic focus from completing a curriculum to demonstrating competency. Staff began by looking at current curriculum (this was before College and Career Readiness Standards) and fleshing out what skills or concepts needed to be demonstrated and what typical products might students use a stock go to ideas if contextualized experiences were not easily developed between student and teacher. One may criticize the list of skills/concepts as not aligning well in terms of scope and the sequence was almost entirely independent of choices learners make in consulting with the teacher. 

Here is an example write up

Learners see a list of Core activities that need to be experienced within the course. 

The learner also has a list of Key learning outcomes that need to be demonstrated within those activities or extensions the learner and teacher agree upon. 

Finally, the learner is given some general suggestions for goal setting. Some learners follow the suggestions quite rigidly while other change up the orders but the total work expectations are still evenly distributed in the 15 weeks. We did not want students sitting there until week 14 to end up with "Well, what did you want me to do now?" 

The "classes" are set up as individualized learning labs. There may be up to 20 learners all doing different content, areas of study and are frequently at very different skill levels. The teacher meets with every student and uses the Intake material (an extensive 2+ hours of gathering information that happens before the learner enters the program) together with discussions with the learner to map out short range and longer range goals for the 15 weeks. Every class the teacher checks in with each student, pulls out individuals or groups that may need directed instruction as needed, and helps learners assess progress and offers suggestions to improve products until competency is judged reached. The learner then digitizes the evidence and decides on the next course of action. 

Notes on the growth process:

Teachers needed much in the way of support and time to adapt to this pattern. It helped that all staff were included in the construction and many revisions of ALL curriculum created this way. As a math guy, going through ELA, science, history and other courses helped me come up with tons of easy tie-ins. This inclusion model had an unexpected benefit in that many cross discipline projects have been designed with much more ease because all teachers were generally aware of what a learner was being expected to do in other courses. Staff quickly started developing the mentality of mentoring and offering options to learners rather than discrete direction. Now that college and career explorations have been added into the Intake process, it is much easier for teachers to be able to try to contextualize the learning activities and products more in line with the learners long term goals. Additionally, the incorporation of the College and Career Readiness Standards have helped to create assessment tools that can be used to guide learners to competency in each Key Learning Outcome given in the curriculum guide a learner receives. 

Biggest obstacle? For learners that are trying to get high school credits or credit recovery, "the system" is still stuck on grades, seat time and credits. These elements often are bothersome "other stuff" items that get in the way of learners focusing on "Have I demonstrated competency in this yet or if I have not what do I need to improve or do next?" There are even state policies that detract from teachers and learners really concentrating on competency demonstration to focus on number of seat hours, standardized test scores that are not aligned to the standards yet, credits and other educational standards that often obstacles when concentrating on demonstrating competency in standards.

Does any of the system I describe above resonate with the CBAE strengths/movements in the past? Does it sound like current efforts going on elsewhere today?  

Ed, and others,

I have just published a short answer to the question, "What is CBE?"  in my Adult Literacy Education blog. It may be of interest, and may help clarify what I am looking for in a competency-based adult education program.

Does competency-based adult education (CBAE) still exist? If so, please share examples of CBAE programs here.

David J. Rosen


Competency-based education, also sometimes known as proficiency-based education, continues to grow in higher education and in public elementary and secondary education. Interest grows, and there are a few more competency-based programs now, in adult basic skills education too. There have been discussions on LINCS about competency-based adult education and higher education since at least 2014. There have been panels and, this year, there was a strand of presentations on competency-based education at the COABE national conference in Orlando. There is a Google group of adult basic skills (including English for immigrants) educators interested in and/or practicing competency-based (proficiency-based) adult education; it is co-led by Donna Chambers and me. Email me if you would like to join it. There are an increasing number of articles, and more presentations at state conferences, too.

Some confuse competency-based education with "minimal competencies". Let's clear up that confusion, Competency-based education has been used for decades in courses preparing teachers, medical doctors, in various occupational (formerly vocational) training programs leading to industry recognized credentials and, in adult basic skills education, to assess learning for adult (external) high school diplomas. There is nothing minimal about it. It's often demanding. However, what makes it appealing for adult basic skills is that it is based on mastery of the content or skills by all learners, and learning outcomes are measured not on a (norm-referenced) curve in which some will fail, but on a (criterion-referenced) performance assessment in which the criteria for mastery are known by learners in advance, and their performance is measured against them. Very refreshing for learners, adult educators and employers.

What are you seeing with regard to competency-based adult education? Is your program or school based on this approach or philosophy? Are you experimenting with it, perhaps in some classes or other components of your program? Are you seeing its growth in companies that hire your students, in occupational education programs you operate or work with or teach in, in IET programs, in micro-credential (digital badges) adoption, and in adult basic skills professional development? If so, tell us what you see.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Program Management, Integrating Technology CoPs