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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Competency counts: No lectures, no mandatory classes, lots of tests

"Competency-based education," which assesses students on skills rather than seat time, is finally becoming a reality for vocational students, reports Adam Echelman in CalMatters.

Automotive technician student at Nicolet College in Wisconsin.

Lakeshore Technical College and Nicolet College, both two-year colleges in Wisconsin, are among the first to switch classes to the new model.

Jack Charles, an automotive instructor at Lakeshore, "used to give two-hour-long lectures every morning on topics such as paints, steels, and plastics," he says. Sometimes, students would fall asleep.

Now, he's set up 32 skills stations in the auto shop with "tools for students to use and a laminated sheet of paper that details the required skill and how to master it," writes Echelman. "In the last two stations, students have to apply their skills by fixing a car. Students can graduate whenever they can prove that they have mastered all 32 skills, and can generally run through the curriculum as quickly or slowly as they like."

Working students appreciate the flexibility, but they're taking longer to complete programs, writes Echelman. "Instructors at both colleges have reintroduced pieces of the traditional classroom, such as suggested deadlines or course schedules, to help students pace themselves." Lakeshore now limits retakes of exams to three tries.

California is trying to pilot the idea at eight community colleges, but the model requires changes in "the state funding formula, faculty pay and financial aid regulations," he reports. There's been push back from faculty.

At Shasta College in Redding, a student seeking an associate degree in early childhood education must take 20 semester-long classes. Under the competency-based system, which could start next school year, students will have to pass 60 exams, each one testing a specific skill, with three retakes per exam.

It's expected that some students will choose the self-paced format, while others will do better in traditional classes.

Texas State Technical College is shifting to a competency-based model to ensure its job-training programs will prepare students for skilled work, reports Rebecca Koenig on EdSurge.

Flexibility shouldn't mean students are learning on their own "them and a screen," says Michael Bettersworth, a vice chancellor at the college. Students do best "learning together in cohorts and through lab-based courses." He's also CEO at SkillsEngine, a free tool that analyzes the skills needed for particular occupations.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which created the time-based "Carnegie Unit" in 1906, hopes to move from "seat time" to "skills," she reports. Carnegie will work with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) "to create new tools designed to assess what students are able to do, not how much time they spent studying to do it."

Testing is critical. Tests have to be rigorous and reliable. "Credit recovery" is, in theory, a competency-based system. Students who may not have shown up in class or done assignments can earn credit for a lost semester by cramming at year's end and passing tests. Have they actually mastered the skills? Many are dubious.

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