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Survey Reports Top Challenge for CBE Is Meaningful Assessment Tools

Public Agenda's survey of competency-based education programs found gaps exist at most institutions between their goals and the achievement of those goals.

While most colleges and universities with competency-based education (CBE) programs believe meaningful assessment tools are important, many of them also know that finding ways to give students "substantive feedback" can be difficult.

That is one of the most significant findings of a recent survey of higher education institutions either delivering CBE programs or planning to. Most CBE programs focus on a student's demonstration of command of content and learning rather than time spent in a classroom.

The survey conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit that focuses on public issues, found that 94 percent of respondents agreed that relevant assessment tools are important. However, just 69 percent were able to say that they had adopted such assessments.

When asked to list 10 elements of successful CBE programs in order of importance, those elements receiving the highest rankings (95 percent) were measurable assessments, proficiency among graduates and a learner-centered focus. Ranking the lowest in importance (with 67 percent of respondents mentioning it) was flexible staff roles and structures.

The issue of meaningful assessment was not the only area in which respondents' expressed goals did not match with their accomplishments so far. For instance, almost all respondents (99 percent) said they believe setting clear-cut standards based on externally established competencies was important — but only 65 percent said they had achieved that goal.

The two most cited challenges to a successful CBE program involved data systems that avoid frustrations for faculty, staff and students (mentioned by two out of five respondents) and problems connecting students with appropriate financial aid (one out of five).

"These barriers are not surprising," said Brandman University Vice Provost Laurie Dodge. "When an institution seeks to eliminate the credit hour, all systems must change, from faculty structure to financial models and awarding student aid."

The Survey of the Shared Design Elements & Emerging Practices of Competency-Based Education Programs, conducted last July and August, had a 24 percent response rate with 179 individuals completing the survey. All those whose survey results were used were individuals who were either designing or delivering a CBE program.

The Public Agency survey was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Educause and several other education-related associations. The hope is that it will create a baseline for further examination in the future.

"These finding are guideposts for institutions, policymakers, foundations and students about key features needed for successful and robust CBE programs," said Alison Kadlee, Public Agenda's senior vice president and director of higher education and workforce programs.

The full report is available for free download from the Public Agenda site.

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.

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