What’s the difference between a standard and a competency?

July 13, 2023

By: Laura Hilger

While we want to nourish content knowledge in schools, we also want to provide deeper learning experiences that require learners to use their knowledge in combination with other skills and dispositions. Skills including critical thinking, collaboration and self-direction, which we are increasingly seeing as critical for success in college, career and life. Rarely is there a time when someone is demonstrating a single discipline or piece of knowledge in isolation of others, though that is often how we test and check for understanding.

That’s where competencies come in.

What you do with what you know.

What you know.

A standard can be most easily described as what a student knows – and a competency is what they do with what they know. Competencies are applicable across multiple content areas and/or learning experiences, whereas standards tend to be about just one content area.

Application and transfer of knowledge, skills, or dispositions across disciplines; Aligned to standards.

Defines the content and skills of a single discipline

Learners can analyze, execute, evaluate, and adapt approaches and solutions when problem-solving in novel situations.

Learners will be able to apply concepts of probability to explain and predict the variation and distribution of expressed traits in a population.

Minnesota State Standards, Life Science

When looking at these examples, you can see how the science standard could be the content knowledge used as part of the application of the North Dakota competency. The content standard doesn’t go away; it becomes part of the learning that builds up to the competency and the opportunities for a learner to demonstrate what they know and are able to do – combining their different types of knowledge, skills they’ve practiced and dispositions they’re cultivating.

What is a competency? And what do you need to consider before creating them?


Laura Hilger
Director of Teaching and Learning

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