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Competency levels and competency rating

A distinction has to be made between competency levels, depicting a hierarchy, be it that of an enterprise or a national education system and the standards of rating a performance within a competency assessment.

Although competency level systems represent a progression, roughly, from novice to expert, each level generally has its own standards and criteria for achievement. The levels in themselves are not „good or bad grades“.

Competency assessment follows basically a philosophy of pass or fail: Either you can do an action or you cannot.

  Yes No
Can X change the wheel of a car? X  

In many cases it is, however, necessary to go into more detail. For example, if the question is - Can X speak French? - it is very often not a question of yes or no, but of „how well exactly“.

For example, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages states six levels of competency which are qualified in terms of what a user can do, even at a basic level. He is not dismissed as inadequate or unsatisfactory. The „can do“ philosophy is preserved.


A: Basic user
A1 – Breakthrough: Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

A2 – Waystage: Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

B: Independent user
B1 – Threshold: Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

B2 – Vantage: Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

C: Proficient user
C1 – Effective Operational Proficiency: Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2 – Mastery: Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

Not to be confused with competency levels are the procedures for rating the performance of a candidate undertaken to attribute him a certain competency or a level of competency. As assessments in practice are made up not only of one attempt but of several tasks or elements of a task, there have to be rules for rating performance. Standards or minimal requirements for a pass or fail decision have to be defined.

These rules generally have to be consistent with the legal requirements (examination regulations) for awarding a qualification in the respective country.

In some cases verbal indicators are used, such as Requirements Not fulfilled – partially fulfilled – fulfilled – exceeded – not observed

In other cases a grading system using points or percentages is applied.