- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - As a Marine, Jasmine Quiroz-Pele went from Japan to Afghanistan and back again, getting a thorough training in supply chain logistics.

But once out of the service, as a civilian in her mid-20s and a single mom who relocated to Fredericksburg after retiring from active duty, she was just another college student, with a long list of prerequisites and general studies requirements between her and a degree.

“I think for me, because I’m in what is considered the professional environment for my industry, a lot of that stuff I was already aware of,” said Quiroz-Pele, who is working full time as a federal employee for the Department of Defense. “A lot of the concepts and procedures were already built into my experiences.”

Proving her proficiency, however, was another story.

That’s because it’s difficult for colleges such as Germanna Community College, where Quiroz-Pele finished an associate’s degree in December, or the University of Mary Washington, where she transferred credits and started classes this month, to measure knowledge and skills acquired outside the classroom.

The attempt to award credit for material learned non-traditionally is often referred to as competency-based education, a phrase whose definition has changed over decades as its popularity has waxed and waned.

Lately, programs that describe themselves as competency-based are likely to offer courses students can complete at their own pace. Some institutions charge by the year or semester rather than the credit, making them a cheaper option for students who can sprint through the courses.

But with the cost of post-secondary education snowballing and the number of students over 25 rising - reaching almost 41 percent of college students in the 2014-15 school year, according to information from the National Center for Education Statistics - schools are more interested than ever in some version of competency-based education, or CBE.

In a 2016 study including a survey of 251 higher education institutions, 37 percent of respondents reported some use of CBE, but about two-thirds hadn’t yet introduced any related programs or were still in the planning stage.

The study, which was conducted by the American Council on Education and partner companies, found that despite high interest, institutions struggled with “competing definitions, confused terminology, and narrow perceptions of what CBE really is.”

“I think it’s just good use of people’s time and people’s money,” said Sarah Somerville, the dean of student development at Germanna.

Administrators at the college have been interested in expanding CBE options, but it is challenging, she said.

When most people think of learning, they think of sitting in a classroom. But when educators think about learning, they spend a lot more time figuring out how to measure it.

Standardized testing has gotten a bad reputation, one that’s sometimes well-deserved. But without some method of measuring learning, it’s almost impossible to create a meaningful credential.

“How do you demonstrate and measure that a person has met this level of competency, or this level of learning, with the outcomes that are supposed to be covered or structured in that classroom setting? That is the challenge. That’s the big challenge,” Somerville said.

Now, a U.S. Department of Labor grant has let Germanna and four other Virginia community colleges attempt to answer that question - as applied to veterans.

Veterans are particularly good candidates for prior learning credit, Somerville said, partly because of the level of skills they learn, but partly because much of their training does take place in “class” form, and the military provides a Joint Service Transcript.

“We’re trying to dig in and look and see: What did that job involve? What level of sophistication and skill? And then, are there (matching) courses that we offer in the community college master course file? That’s what right now we’re really digging into and it is humongous. It is a huge undertaking,” she said.

“And what we’re doing . even though it’s huge, it’s really sort of a tiny piece of what is actually known or thought of as competency-based education.”

Because so many community college students transfer credit to other schools, the college has the added challenge of capturing what was learned in a way that other higher-education institutions will accept.

But it’s worth it, Somerville said, because identifying credit that veterans could qualify for is a good use of federal funds. Otherwise, former military students are often forced to spend their G.I. bill money on classes teaching things they already know.

To an extent, that’s the case for Quiroz-Pele, who earned several classes’ worth of credit through her military background. But she could earn credit only for work that clearly related to a class in Germanna’s catalog, leaving her with a long list of needed courses.

“I kind of blew through a lot of them,” she said of some of the online prerequisites and classes that were, for her, a review. “They gave me a lot of the assignments and in some of the classes I was done with the assignments in two weeks. That’s 16 weeks of work.”

She earned much more credit through taking College-Level Examination Program tests, probably the most commonly known and accepted version of competency-based learning.

But while the College Board program offers tests in 36 subject areas, institutions vary on which tests and what minimum scores they will accept.

Quiroz-Pele is looking forward to the more advanced classes she’ll take at UMW this year, although she’s sometimes frustrated that the university doesn’t offer as many classes online, and the schedule often isn’t as work day-friendly as she found it at Germanna.

“I think that in my specific case, the lower levels weren’t as developmental. For me they were a little redundant,” she said. “The higher levels . I go through and sift through some of the assignments and a lot of this stuff is new.”

Somerville said getting students to that place, where the material is new, is the goal - but it’s a tough one to reach.

“It saves everybody money, it saves everybody time, and I think it broadens the concept of what learning really is,” she said. “It’s just the challenge of figuring out how to document it, how to measure it, how to turn it into what so long has functioned in a certain way. It’s a great thing to do. It’s just not easy.”

___

Information from: The Free Lance-Star, https://www.fredericksburg.com/

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