The Democratization of Higher Education and Competency-Based Assessment

Is the competency-based approach to assessment and degrees a step towards greater accountability and improved clarity for teachers and learners alike?  Or, does it sound the death knell for traditional higher education, fashioned to control non-elite students who are more interested in career preparation than the liberal arts? Or is the definition of the two sides as contrasted and hostile to each other; a false dichotomy; a red herring cooked up by traditional academics to derail the discussion?

This will be the subject of a “Point/Counterpoint” panel which I will chair on Friday, April 25th at the Western Academic Leadership Forum Annual Meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., sponsored by WICHE. The US Department of Education’s approval of competency-based education programs for Title 4 financial aid has moved this issue from the academic margins to the mainstream as institutions sign up, following the lead of Western Governor’s University.

I believe that it is a false dichotomy. First, I will stipulate that any mode of teaching, learning, and assessment can be done badly. We all know that. Having said that, however, an evidence-based assessment process that not only asks for answers, but also for understanding and performance, has the potential to transform the learning experience for the better.

How? By transforming assessment from an inconsistent and unreliable measurement — driven by an academic’s subjective impression — to a presentation of evidence and understanding that puts the learning in a far more consistent context and requires the learner’s reflection an understanding. Put another way, having consistent outcomes does not require that all learners do the same thing. In fact you could have many different forms of evidence, each satisfying the requirements of the outcomes. And there is still plenty of room for teaching, mentoring, and guiding by faculty members.

The deeper potential for competency-based education, in addition to reliability, clarity, and accountability, lies in its potential to transform assessment from a measurement of what you know, to a pedagogy that helps you understand what you know through active reflection and development of evidence. I think that reflection is the way we can extract meaning from experience, a way to understand what we know and what we have learned more deeply. And a commitment to assessment that does this is a commitment to better results for the learner.

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