Proficiency Testing, Competency Demonstration and Credit for Prior Learning

Earlier this week, The Chronicle, reported on “buzz among policymakers and think-tanks and foundations” about  competency-based education.  According to the article, “College, on your own,” competency-based education, “redefines academic progress according to the learning that students demonstrate.”  Presumably, that demonstration might be by examination, project or otherwise.

The article goes on to identify White House, think tank and foundation interest in the concept of competency based education. To be sure, the concept of competency-based education can cover a number of very different things: test-based credit for courses; skills-based testing for entire curricula; or even credit for past experiences.  I want to focus on course-oriented proficiency testing.

The day after The Chronicle article, Matt Reed of Inside Higher Ed, pondered in a blog post whether emphasizing “disruption” was the most helpful narrative; colleges and universities have offered test-based credit – proficiency test – for quite some time. I agree.

Some of the issues related to competency or proficiency testing are purely administrative.  Others are more philosophic. In this view, “A good liberal education,” as Johann Neem wrote, is not out specific outcomes or competencies, but about having “intellectual experiences.”  Critics of the credit hour system point to proficiency testing as an alternative necessary; the credit-hour system was maladpated from a solution for a different problem.  For me, the issues about proficiency testing in higher education are somewhat different.  They are student interest and quality testing. 

Administering – and sometimes writing – proficiency examinations is part of my job.  I haven’t noticed a clamoring of students for the opportunity to take a proficiency test.  I do agree that student work on proficiency tests would speed their way through college at a lower cost.  I do think more students should explore and even pursue this option, but I have observed, that not many students want to invest the time on self-study to prepare themselves to pass a rigorous examination.  They prefer to take the class; I think that preference will limit use of proficiency or competency exams.

Second, to a point, I agree that the experience of an education matters; good proficiency tests shouldn’t demand merely a recitation of a canned set of facts.  The tests need to provide an opportunity for students to show that they have had the transformational educational experience that the underlying course would provide.  Precisely, what that test should look like – especially in the abstract – is harder to say.  An obvious criterion is this: The test should provide some assurance that the student who passes it can thrive in the next sequential course – the one after the course for which proficiency is taught.  Less obviously, and much harder to articulate or measure, a proficiency test should provide some assurance that the student who passes it operates at the same level and in the same domains – in the sense set out by Benjamin Bloom in his well-known taxonomy – as the student who has enjoyed peak intellectual experiences in the underlying courses shows.  I suppose there are other criteria that merit attention as well.

Discussion on this matter is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.


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