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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

College of competence: How WGU works

Western Governors University, a national nonprofit, has been providing online, self-paced competency-based education to career-minded students for 20 years now, reports Jon Marcus on Education Next.

Some 80,000 undergraduate and graduate students are studying education, business, health professions, and information technology.

Each of its degree programs includes a list of topics to be mastered, called “domains,” determined in consultation with employers.

Students must “prove they’ve mastered all the skills and knowledge offered in a given subject area” in order to advance, writes Marcus.

In a Harris poll last year, “78 percent of Western Governors grads said what they learned was directly related to their work, compared to 68 percent of the other graduates,” he reports. “Ninety-nine percent of employers said WGU graduates met or exceeded expectations, and 100 percent reported that the grads were prepared for their jobs.”

Graduates also are somewhat more likely to pass professional licensing exams, according to WGU.

Teacher Kassidy Fann, who’s working on a master’s degree, believes competency-based education and assessment could work in K-12 schools.

New Hampshire, Kansas, Maine, Arizona, Colorado, and Vermont are experimenting with competency models, writes Marcus.

New Hampshire is the furthest along, with its Performance Assessment of Competency Education initiative, or PACE. Rather than counting how much time students spend in seats, this system tests whether they’ve met “learning targets,” requiring them to pass incremental assessments—demonstrating the skills they’ve acquired—in order to keep moving forward. Students in middle-school English, for example, write research papers showing they can analyze and present information from different sources. Fourth graders in math design a new park, estimate its construction cost, and produce a presentation arguing in favor of building it.

Scott Pulsipher, president of WGU, doesn’t think the time is right to adapt the model to K-12 schools. “We would only want to partner with people who truly have the commitment to stick with this over the long term.”

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