Increasingly frustrated at the high cost and uncertain returns of traditional higher education, the federal government and some states, like Wisconsin, are taking a hard look at competency-based education. Competency-based education focuses on the attainment of skills rather than hours spent sitting in a classroom seat. The attainment of skills can be measured by performance on exams, papers, and other assignments, as in a traditional course, but once students have demonstrated competency in an area, they can receive credit and move on, rather than waiting for the end of an artificial semester. The competency-based model promises drastically to reduce cost and time to degree for students, and to help employers identify skilled employees.
Northern Arizona University, an early adopter of competency-based education, has just put out a sample competency-based transcript to demonstrate the latter’s benefit. By naming the skills that students have learned in their courses, NAU hopes to provide useful information to employers, who probably do not care whether a student earned a B+ in the Sociology of Religion but probably do care whether students can write. Unfortunately, NAU’s sample transcript is at best a marketing tool, and suggests that competency-based education has a way to go if it is to fulfill its promise of rendering the connection between education and job skills more transparent.
Imagine you are an employer looking at such a transcript. You see the heading “Works in a Team Structure.” This sounds promising. You need people who know how to work in a team structure.
But read on, if you have time to analyze this verbose transcript while sifting through 400 other applications. “Works in a Team Structure” means that the student knows how to “identify key concepts and theories in Group Dynamics, identify key concepts and theories in intercultural communication and engage in intelligent, rational discussion about contemporary issues concerning work.” Why can you be confident the student knows all that? Because he or she has mastered two of the three lessons available that cover those competencies.
What does mastery mean? That the student has elected to show “high level comprehension of the material” through an “additional test, presentation, paper, case study, or other form of assessment.” So you know that the student has performed satisfactorily on one test or another of the ability to identify and discuss ideas about group dynamics and intercultural communication. What do you know about the student’s ability to work “in a team structure”? Apparently nothing.
But perhaps the transcript can tell you something about whether the student has learned to “Analyze Complicated Materials.” Can you make sense of, and do you even care about, what it means for the student to have mastered two of five available lessons in analyzing “paintings and literature, along with major themes in Marx, Spenser, Durkheim, and Simmel,” in discussing “emerging narrative and ideological components of postwar film and world literature,” and in demonstrating an “understanding and knowledge of Film Noir,” “Nations at War in the Middle East,” and of “the Cold War and its aftermath”?
It is as if a competency-based transcript differs from a traditional one because it omits the grade a student received in Film Noir, or the Cold War and its Aftermath, and inserts a sentence or two from the catalog descriptions of those courses. Certainly, it gives an employer no more, and perhaps rather less, confidence that a student can analyze complicated materials, than a traditional transcript that says a student earned an A in Shakespeare.
There is real promise in competency-based education, especially for adult students who already have most of the knowledge and skill a degree holder is expected to have. But it is important to distinguish between the rigorous evaluation of competence, and the mere appearance of such an evaluation.