Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Measuring Mastery: Best Practices for Assessment in Competency-Based Education

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Measuring Mastery: Best Practices for Assessment in Competency-Based Education

Article excerpt


Rising tuition prices and finite public budgets have spawned a lively policy debate about innovation in higher education. In particular, competency-based models have garnered a lot of attention from policymakers, reformers, and funders. Unlike online college courses, which often leave the basic semesterlong structure intact, competency-based models award credit based on student learning, not time spent in class. As soon as a student can prove mastery of a particular set of competencies, he or she is free to move on to the next set. A number of institutions are currently engaged in these efforts, including Western Governors University, Excelsior College, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Wisconsin's UW Flexible Option.

The competency-based model presents opportunities for improvement on two dimensions: first, it allows students to move at their own pace, perhaps shortening the time to complete a degree, and second, competencies can provide a clearer signal of what graduates know and are able to do. Yet for all the enthusiasm that surrounds competency-based approaches, a number of fundamental questions remain: What kinds of students are likely to choose competency-based programs? How do students in these programs fare in terms of persistence, completion, and labor market outcomes? Are these programs more affordable than traditional degrees? What does the regulatory environment look like for competency-based providers? Do employers value the credential?

Despite increasing attention being paid to the potential of competency-based education, researchers and policymakers still have few answers to these questions. To provide some early insight, AEI's Center on Higher Education Reform has commissioned a series of papers that examine various aspects of competency-based education. In the third paper of the series, Katie Larsen McClarty and Matthew N. Gaertner of Pearson Education introduce a set of best practices for high-stakes competency-based education assessment, detailing how providers can work to validate their assessments and establish performance levels that map to real-world mastery.

As always, our goal is not to come up with a verdict as to whether this innovation is good or bad, but to provide a look under the hood that is useful to policymakers and other observers. I hope you find it useful, and stay tuned for more.

--Andrew P. Kelly Resident Scholar in Education Policy Studies Director, Center on Higher Education Reform American Enterprise Institute

Executive Summary

Competency-based education (CBE) programs are growing in popularity as an alternative path to a postsecondary degree. Freed from the seat-time constraints of traditional higher education programs, CBE students can progress at their own pace and complete their postsecondary education having gained relevant and demonstrable skills. The CBE model has proven particularly attractive for nontraditional students juggling work and family commitments that make conventional higher education class schedules unrealistic. But the long-term viability of CBE programs hinges on the credibility of these programs' credentials in the eyes of employers. That credibility, in turn, depends on the quality of the assessments CBE programs use to decide who earns a credential.

In this paper we introduce a set of best practices for high-stakes assessment in CBE, drawing from both the educational-measurement literature and current practices in prior-learning and CBE assessment. Broadly speaking, there are two areas in assessment design and implementation that require significant and sustained attention from test developers and program administrators: (1) validating the assessment instrument itself and (2) setting meaningful competency thresholds based on multiple sources of evidence. Both areas are critical for supporting the legitimacy and value of CBE credentials in the marketplace. …

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