According to a PBS article, an increasing number of students who enroll in public colleges enter unprepared. At first glance, the idea of dropping placement tests like Accuplacer may seem like a bad idea. After all, students with low skills need to be identified and brought up to speed. But consider the following factors: outside stress, illness, and poor test-taking skills can all impact student scores. Much of the time, results don’t reflect what students can actually accomplish, because too many variables can cause an inaccurate result in a single placement test.

Then there’s the problem of the remedial label; often, students who place in developmental classes don’t attend their courses. The stigma can interfere with student achievement.

Enter competency-based learning, a solution many community colleges are choosing to better serve students whose skills are still developing. The model is gaining in popularity at colleges and universities across the country, including Northern Essex in Massachusetts, Purdue University, the University of Michigan, and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Defining competency-based learning
Competency-based learning focuses on structuring skill acquisition for students to demonstrate what they know and can do, rather than be required to complete sequences of time-consuming courses based on a single, questionable placement score.

Cathrael Kazin, managing partner of Volta Leaning Group, a consulting company that assists colleges in implementing new postsecondary ed models, believes that the competency-based model is superior to the traditional placement test/course sequence model. Kazin, who was founding chief academic officer at SNHU’s College of America initiative—whose competency-based program was the first of its kind approved by the Department of Education in 2013—says that while placement tests are quick and easy and can handle many students, they give a false sense of objectivity. “There’s really little evidence for it, and there are better ways to see where students are,” she says. In addition, placement tests cause higher dropout rates, unfairly affect first-generation students and students of color, cost students more money, and lengthen the time it takes for students to graduate.

Kazin believes that learning based on competency is a better model because it is learner focused. It ensures that students actually possess the skills they are supposed to have acquired and are ready for today’s workforce. In addition, students avoid the remedial label, which can have devastating consequences. “We need to label skills instead of students,” Kazin says.

Competency-based learning in action
To make this method work, skills need to be well-defined and contextualized for specific courses. Competency-based learning’s biggest strength is that it personalizes learning and better serves student needs.

The transition from a placement-testing to a competency-based model is neither quick nor easy, but you can start by looking at your college’s track record and assessing if the developmental education program is helping students move toward graduation. If it isn’t, Kazin recommends checking out the Competency-Based Education Network, a Lumina Foundation-funded network of 30 colleges and universities and four public systems that’s working to advance high-quality competency-based education and offers resources such as the Quality Framework for Competency-Based Education Programs. She also suggests clearly communicating to students about what they should know and be able to do upon completing the courses, using multiple measures to assess readiness, and recognizing that different majors and career goals may require preparation.

About the Author:

In addition to writing professionally, Sandra Fyfe, MA, teaches technology-enhanced English and foundational literacy courses at Salem State University and North Shore Community College in Massachusetts.


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