What the Department of Ed doesn’t understand about PLA and CBE

Despite what some may say, there is an undeniable relationship between prior learning assessment and competency-based education.  Prior learning assessment (PLA) is the measurement of what someone knows and can do based on their previous experiences and learning.  Competency-based education (CBE) is an educational methodology which credentials students in what they know and can do, and provides them with the tools they need to learn and demonstrate mastery of what they don’t yet understand.  Both methodologies are focused on providing students with a performative opportunity to demonstrate they possess college level learning.

The perceived differences lie in two areas – with target of the assessment, and the students’ temporal relationship with their learning.  PLA came about in an era when the field of higher education was firmly tethered to the credit hour.  Students performing prior learning assessments are generally doing so to gain traditional credit.  Modern CBE programs, meanwhile, have brought the sanctity of the credit hour into question, and instead attempt to credential students around a particular set of skills or abilities (competencies).  The CBE assessments are not designed to ensure that a student understands three credits of material, but that they can successful perform a particular action or task.  The other ostensible difference comes out of the ‘prior’ piece of prior learning assessment.  Whether a student is assembling a portfolio or completing a challenge exam, they are attempting to earn credit for what they already know.  In a CBE program, meanwhile, students are provided with instructional opportunities to learn mastery of competencies they can’t yet demonstrate.

But, when you look critically at what a CBE curriculum should be doing, you see that it’s providing students with an opportunity to learn, but more importantly, it’s also providing students with an assessment through which they can demonstrate mastery of a competency.  If a very experienced student comes to an institution, it’s likely that they would succeed in some assessments even without relying on the instructional materials.  Then the question arises – if a student has earned credit for their prior learning in a competency-based format, is it useful to differentiate between the two processes?

This implicit connection is lost on many of CBE’s supposed advocates.  The Department of Education, for instance, has introduced a number of experimental sites programs with the goal of ostensibly fostering innovation around competency-based education.  There are three experiments allowing some form of financial aid to go to students who enroll in prior learning assessment, competency-based, or limited direct assessment programs.  Unfortunately, at least two of these efforts are profoundly misguided.  For example, in the PLA ex site, students are limited to adding the cost of three credits of PLA to their total cost of attendance.  While this will help defray their assessment costs somewhat, the majority of students who participate in PLA earn far more than three credits, and will continue to receive no aid to cover those additional assessment costs.  Moreover, this experiment is restricted to course-based prior learning assessment, and cannot be used in conjunction with a CBE program.

The CBE ex site meanwhile expressly forbids the use of aid to pay for the assessment of learning that did not transpire within the CBE program (read: PLA).  So if a student comes to a CBE program and can satisfy a competency right from the outset, they are either barred from receiving financial aid for the cost of that assessment, or they need to wait a few weeks after enrolling to take the assessment.  This creates the illusion that students have learned the material at the institution, rather than through the life experience, and is apparently an acceptable loophole to the ED.

Not only does this betray a misunderstanding of the core concepts behind CBE, but also how students learn.  The average college student is not an empty vessel that colleges fill with knowledge.  They are a unique individual who brings with them their own set of experiences and knowledge.  The goal of a good CBE program is to empower students to leverage that learning towards their degree.  Unfortunately, by holding financial aid hostage behind these bizarre stipulations, these experimental sites will encourage institutions to design their programs in a way that isn’t consistent with pedagogical best practices.  The focus of a CBE program can’t simply be new and emergent learning, but the interplay between prior and present.  And without new policies that take this relationship into account, ultimately students will be the ones who suffer the most.


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