Is There a Testing Crisis in Competency-based Education?

The more I follow the growing competency-based education movement, the more I am interested by certain decisions. Why are we so often limiting ourselves when it comes to assessment? It could be that we have an emerging testing crisis in competency-based education. Allow me to explain.

When the University of Wisconsin announced that they would be offering bachelor degrees based on competency testing instead of seat time and credits earned the old-fashioned way, there were many reactions. Some rejoiced that this was a promising step toward increased access and opportunity, and extending affordability of higher education. Others lamented the loss of the intangibles and deeply human side of instructor-student and student-student interaction. Still others decided to withhold judgment until they could learn more. Then there were others who couldn’t quite grasp what this meant or what it would look like. The UW model is not that different from many existing CBE programs. If you can show that you know it, you get the “credit”, and there are pre-established “assessments” to determine if you know it.

Yet, “assessment” is a loaded term. For some, that can mean projects, portfolios and a myriad of other ways to determine and document learning. For others, they mainly think about traditional tests. As such, if we look at the growing interest in competency-based education, I have a serious concern that some (not necessarily the UW model, I’ve not examined that one enough to know) are failing to be as innovative with their approaches to assessment of learning than they think they are being with their overall shift to a CBE approach. When this happens, all we are really talking about is allowing people to test out or progress by testing well.

Some join the conversation at this point noting that this is a very important topic. That is why we must become experts in test design, knowing that our tests are valid and reliable measures of student learning. Why focus on traditional tests? Even common approaches to assuring reliability and validity of tests do not go so far as to look at transferability. If you perform well on a test, does that mean you are highly likely to perform well in that domain in a real-world (by real-world, I don’t just mean work) context?

I call this the testing crisis because traditional tests (especially the common multiple choice, true/false types) are not the real world. We don’t hire people to take tests. The testing crisis is that we have created this entirely alternative world in educational institutions that do little to amplify the best of a school’s historic or contemporary identity and mission. Many tests are designed in ways that they are abstractions, one or more steps removed from authentic interactions with knowledge or skills.

Yet, they are scalable and that seems to be what people most value about them. You can assess people quickly and with measures of reliability and validity that most others accept. So, they are time-savers for the teacher with a large number of students. They support the ability for less personal and less intimate forms of education, although I acknowledge that some learning experiences can be rich and rewarding without being personal and intimate. As best as I can tell, these types of tests are and always have been efficiency more than anything else.

When it comes to  competency-based education or even traditional contexts measured by seat-time, I continue to plead with people to imagine the possibilities for their assessments. I recognize the time challenges of teachers with large groups of learners, but there are far more possibilities than many initially imagine. You can design a robust, rewarding and effective assessment plan by mixing a myriad of current and emerging practices. You can leverage projects and rubrics, performances and rubrics, papers and rubrics, narrative assessment and feedback, portfolio assessment, self-assessment tools, peer-assessment strategies, scenario and case-based learning with integrated assessments, many approaches to authentic assessment and more.

When it comes to the CBE movement, some argue that traditional and more standardized tests are an important part of the movement itself. These tests will allow them to validate this method and communicate the widespread impact and effectiveness. It gives thems the numbers that they need and want to defend their innovation. Yet, there are others ways to do this. We just need to take the time to more broadly and deeply explore and imagine the possibilities.

2 thoughts on “Is There a Testing Crisis in Competency-based Education?

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thanks for the important comment, Kim. One of the challenges is that common efforts to ensure reliability and validity are done some in a vacuum, apart from more extensive considerations of context and transferability of knowledge and skills.

  2. Kim Marxhausen

    In my measurement classes I was continually reminded that without reliability there is no validity. It is unfortunate that this seemed to lead to the belief that if a test is reliable it must have validity. Or if it has statistical (internal) validity then it can be trusted to test what it purports to test. We must solve the validity question if we are to depend on any assessment to authentically demonstrate learning.

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