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Aurora Institute

High Schools May Be Competency-Based Without Knowing It?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Leverage Career and Technical Education

StudentsDoes your high school offer Advanced Placement or IB tests? If so, you may be participating in a form of competency-based education in the higher education sector.

In his The Landscape of Competency-Based Education: Enrollments, Demographics and Affordability, Robert Kelchen includes AP and IB as a form of Prior Learning Assessment. Kelchen breaks down higher education competency-based education into two forms:

  1. Well-established prior learning assessments (PLA), which grant credits for content a student has previously mastered; and
  2. Newer competency-based coursework, where students progress toward a degree as they demonstrate mastery of new academic content.

I want to emphasize that these two forms apply to higher education. In K12, we are seeing the phrase competency education apply to everything from self-paced online curriculum to the full structural changes as advanced here at CompetencyWorks, which are designed to correct the low achievement and inequity of the traditional time-based system. We don’t think about giving credits to kindergartners who already know how to count to fifty when they enter school, instead focusing on where they are on a very long progression and making sure they are learning in their “zone” (as in, the zone of proximal development).

Kelchen explains that PLAs are a well-accepted part of the transition from high school to college, with more than 2,900 institutions of higher education (IHE) giving credits for AP or IB test results. However, as we know, IHEs treat these credits in different ways, and there is variation in how colleges determine if they will award the credit. (It’s not just IHEs that act with disregard for the students—districts often won’t accept credits earned by students in juvenile detention, basically creating one more hurdle for them to reach graduation.)

This raises a question for all of us—how do we create a transparent way to understand this wobbly bridge between high school and higher education? Why should IHEs get to determine whether they will give college credit for a credit earned through a concurrent or dual credit or a score of 3, 4, or 5 on an AP test? These are sold to students and high schools as a way of earning college credit…until they aren’t. If there is a substantial difference in skill between a 3, 4, and a 5 on an AP test, can this open a door to creating a language of levels, as in a three-tiered bridge between high school and college?

Knowing that a GPA is in itself a wobbly indicator of learning, with colleges turning to the SAT and ACT to provide a sense of where students are in their learning, might we calibrate or tune the expectations between the different tiers of IHE and high schools regarding what it means to do college level work?

Keeping what it means to demonstrate college level work a secret can only be most harmful to children of parents who did not go to college. It can only be a form of reinforcing inequity for children of color whose parents faced substantially more barriers to access to top-end colleges.

The article in Ed Week argues that colleges have a financial disincentive for accepting college credit earned in high school. This is only because the quality of their education is measured at the time of admissions, not at the time of graduation. Regardless if IHEs are going to become competency-based or not, it’s time for them to calibrate entry-level courses so students know exactly what it means to be college ready.