Competency-based programs


Competency-based education has been around for awhile. It's the mainstay of vocational and occupational education in North America, Australia, and in some European countries.

For awhile, in the 1980s and 1990's it was popular in many adult basic education programs in the U.S. It was very big, for example, in California. The External Diploma Program (EDP), an alternative high school credential assessment, designed by Dr. Ruth Nickse, who was then at Syracuse University, was competency-based and was offered in several states including my own. Operated now as a national program, by CASAS, I believe it still is competency-based.

For the past several years there has been a lot of interest in competency-based higher education, and now, there are a few competency-based undergraduate programs, some available inexpensively for $10,000 (total, not annual). Is this a wave of the future, a possible solution for working adults who need an affordable undergraduate degree that their employer might pay for?

Will competency-based education have a revival in adult basic education?

Will digital badges (discussed in December on the LINCS Technology CoP -- spur adult basic education programs, state, and/or national organizations to offer mini-credentials (digital badges) that are competency-based, and that have meaning not only in higher education but also to employers? (Some employers appear to like these competency-based credentials.)

Will the National Reporting System develop a competency-based (digital badges-influenced) alternative?

This time around, will competency-based credentials and competency-based program design avoid the "invisible forest" phenomenon where, because of intense concentration on small learning objectives and outcomes, the trees were clearly drawn but the forest went missing?

Will the kinds of deeper knowledge measures such as those described by Benjamin Bloom, more recently by Norman Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK), and found in Common Core State Standards and College and Career Readiness Standards, be adequately reflected among the competencies?

Let's see.

If you have some current examples of planning for, or implementation of, competency-based education in adult basic education or in higher education I, for one, would love to learn about them.

David J. Rosen




These are all important questions, David, and timely ones too.  They could all be discussion topics that would fit in the discussion Jackie started about "The Most Debatable Topic in Adult Education."  Could you roll them all into one succinct question and suggest it in that forum?  I'm sure you have been getting the posts on her question.

Donna and others,

I am not sure I can wrap all my questions into one debate question, but one of them that I think could make an interesting and important debate is: Should the National Reporting System develop a competency-based (possibly digital badges-influenced) alternative? If so, should that be in addition to the present system that relies on standardized tests, or should it replace that system?  I will post that on the EBPD CoP, as you have suggested.

David J. Rosen


David (and all), You pose some provocative questions. As I was reading your post, the first question that came to my mind was the one you pose at the end regarding deeper knowledge measures since Webb's Depth of Knowledge and the CCRS are very much influencing our current thinking. I would love to hear what community members think about that.

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, Assessment CoP

Australia has had competency based adult literacy and numeracy courses for many many years.  While there are benefits, there are also disadvantages - but we have come to live with it.  You might like to look at the Certificates in General Education for Adults (CGEA) (available at and the Foundation Skills Training Package ( to see what our competency based adult literacy and numeracy courses look like.

I would be interested to know what you think.


Hello Jan,

Thanks for sharing this information on competency-based adult literacy education in Australia. I have just looked at the outline of the Certificate I in General Education for Adults. I like that it includes not only basic skills such as reading, writing and numeracy/math but also: developing a learning plan and portfolio; learning about the features of the education and health care systems; community options; Australian history; science; the environment; the electoral and legal systems; work-related skills; technology skills; calculating and communicating sports scores; and so much more.

Do you know if Australia is exploring (or already has) digital badges for these or other adult literacy education competencies and, if so, do the digital badges lead to the Certificate?

David J. Rosen


The U.S. Department of Education will give its blessing -- and grant federal aid eligibility -- to colleges' experimentation with competency-based education and prior learning assessment.

On Tuesday the department announced a new round of its “experimental sites” initiative, which waives certain rules for federal aid programs so institutions can test new approaches without losing their aid eligibility. Many colleges may ramp up their experiments with competency-based programs -- and sources said more than 350 institutions currently offer or are seeking to create such degree tracks.

But perhaps more importantly, said several proponents of this emerging form of education, the federal program could help lay the groundwork for regulation and legislation that is better-suited to competency-based learning.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives is slated to vote this week on legislation with similar goals. The so-called “demonstration project” bill would allow up to 20 institutions to offer competency-based degrees without meeting all federal rules. The White House said Tuesday it supports the legislation.

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~ Priyanka Sharma