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PLA, Test-Outs, and CBE Pretests

Standard VIII, in CAEL’s Ten Standards for for Quality Assurancestates “Fees charged for assessment should be based on the services performed in the process and not determined by the amount of credit awarded.” Anyone who has gone through the portfolio process of earning credit through PLA appreciates the work involved in articulating the learning and being assessed on it. Some PLA programs include an option that allows students to test out of a course. Usually this involves the construction of a well thought out assessment, built by the faculty and assessed under very secure circumstances. The student generally does not pay the tuition for the course, but a set fee for the exam. There are standardized exams for this process (CLEP, ACE, etc), but colleges often construct their own as well. How, then, does this compare with pretests in competency based learning?

A lot of thought needs to be put into the pretest–what is it purpose? Is the student paying for credit hours, or is there a set fee regardless? Many colleges and universities, offering CBE, have gone with alternative tuition fees. Considering Standard VIII above, this makes sense. But what if the institution hasn’t changed the way they charge tuition? If the pretest occurs before the student enrolls in the course, and provides the student with the option of testing out of the course (is given credit for the course ), then there is no conflict, especially if the student is allowed to complete any final artifact of competency that enrolled students will complete. However, if the pretest occurs within a CBE course, and allows a student to  “test out”, then there is a conflict, because the student is paying by the credit hour. In this situation, my own recommendation is that students who can prove they’ve achieved the required level of competency in any given course, should be allowed to test out. Schools developing a CBE program, should consider having this option available for all students.

Pretests that occur within the context of a CBE course, should have the primary purpose of being a diagnostic tool. They can provide students (and instructors) with important information, especially because by its very nature CBL is self-paced. A well constructed pretest can and should have questions that are matched to the competencies in the given course. Additionally, the competencies themselves should have an allotment of time associated with them–the time it would take the average student to cover the content required to master the competency (what we once thought of in terms of carnegie units). When the student completes the pretest, he/she should receive a report that indicates their current level of competency in each of the related areas (so they know how much time and energy they may need to spend in a given competency), and the actual calculation of time they would need to devote to the tasks. This will allow the student, who may need more than a semester to complete the course, the opportunity to request more than a semester and/or know how many courses they can reasonably complete in a given amount of time.

In summary, test-outs and PLA should be used to give credit up front for a particular course/competency, while pretests should be considered diagnostic and not used for awarding credit. All CBE programs should offer some sort of PLA credit. This does not mean that a student, who has not tested out, can’t move through the course rapidly; they can still skip practices and content (if they choose) yet will need to complete the graded assessments associated with all the given competencies within the course.

I’ve attached a suggested template for planning your pretest, which you can download: Pretests_Maps

And here is a  small sample of the kinds of data that properly constructed pretests can provide to students: table showing question #, competency, difficulty, score, time on question

data showing how student scored against competencies and approximate time they will need to spend in order to master the competency