Monday, November 12, 2018

PLA, Dual Enrollment, and Transfer

This one is a bit inside-baseball, but it matters.

One of the more effective ways to help adult students accelerate their degree programs is through prior learning assessment (PLA).  It takes various forms, but the most common one is credit through some sort of exam. That could be an AP exam, a CLEP, a DSST, or even a departmental challenge exam.  Depending on the field, it may also take the form of a portfolio, an audition, or some other demonstration of mastery.

The beauty of PLA is that it separates what you know from how you learned it.  If you’re able to demonstrate competency at the goals of a given course, then you get credit for the course.  It’s purely a measure of output, rather than input. In practical terms, that means that it matters not whether you learned through a semester-based class with a college professor, self-instruction drawing on MOOCs, experience at work, or any combination.  For those of us who aren’t fans of the credit hour, it’s a baby step towards competency-based education.

It also provides a workaround for a persistent and frustrating element of many dual enrollment classes.  For dual enrollment classes taught in high schools, we frequently run into a shortage of high school teachers with master’s degrees in the discipline being taught.  (Dispatching college faculty to the high schools is often logistically difficult, especially in schools with “bloc” scheduling.) If we can’t find someone who meets our qualifications as an adjunct, the course can’t run.  But if the class is taught along the AP model -- in which college credit is determined through PLA -- then the teacher’s degree doesn’t matter.

That also potentially solves a knotty problem in English classes.  In my state, high school students need four years of English to get their diplomas.  If a student takes and fails a dual-enrollment English class, then she misses out on both college credit and a high school graduation requirement.  But the AP model offers a way to separate a high school course grade from a college credit determination. In an AP class, a student’s course grade is separate from the exam grade.  The former counts towards high school requirements, and the latter determines college credit. PLA offers an opportunity to reduce the risk for a high school student taking a dual enrollment classes she needs for high school graduation.

All is not sweetness and light, though.  A couple of issues make it complicated.

One is the reliance on a single high-stakes test.  By now, we’re all pretty familiar with the issues that single tests raise.  For a college to simultaneously move in the direction of multi-factor placement for remediation and also towards single high-stakes tests for dual enrollment seems contradictory.  We’d be replacing a standardized test for placement with a standardized test for credit. That doesn’t seem like a step forward.

The second is that credit by exam doesn’t always transfer.  For students who want to go on beyond the associate’s degree -- which many dual enrollment students do -- that can be a rude shock.  At least with AP or CLEP tests, there’s a track record and a consistent history on which to draw. If a given university doesn’t accept a 3 for credit on the AP, well, so it goes.  It isn’t ideal, but everybody can know upfront what the deal is.

But with more innovative or idiosyncratic forms of assessment, credit often won’t transfer at all.  Local departmental exams rarely transfer, at least without a lot of legwork. Portfolios have to be reassessed, with no guarantee of a positive outcome.  Yes, there’s CAEL, but CAEL is time-consuming and expensive, and financial aid doesn’t cover it.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges that have made the transfer of PLA work consistently?  If so, what made it work?