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Innovative Colleges Need Innovative Ways of Measuring Student Progress

An old saying tells us that every challenge is an opportunity, but it works both ways: every opportunity is also a challenge.

That’s the situation Calbright found itself in. We had implemented a unique educational model — Competency Based Education — a system that evaluates students by what they actually know, not by how much time they spend in classrooms. We put it exclusively online, and made it free for adult Californians so that we could serve and support the most diverse populations across the state that are underserved by traditional forms of higher education..

That’s the opportunity. It created a challenge: if we’re not measuring the amount of time students are spending in the classroom, then how are we keeping track of them? How do we know that students are making progress, or that they’re struggling and need help?

At the time, we had to figure that out ourselves. Now, a new report from California Competes cites Calbright as a model of how Competency Based Education (CBE) can measure student progress, and elegantly lays out both the challenges and the opportunities that this approach to adult education offers.

“Progress measures designed for traditional set-time-based programs may not work for CBE,” the report — called “Measures of Student Progress for Competency Based Education” — notes. "CBE progress exists in tension with traditional measures of progress applied across terms and years. As one college president puts it, ‘Competency-based education flips the relationship and says let time be variable, but make learning well-defined, fixed, and non-negotiable.’”

The report takes as a given — and Calbright does too — that CBE models of education demand new approaches to measuring progress, and that stakeholders must track student progress to improve outcomes. Calbright firmly believes that CBE programs are only likely to work for students, especially hard to reach students, if we establish and maintain strong connections with them throughout their journey. 

The California Competes report offers three strong recommendations for measuring student progress, two of which we have already implemented and one of which we strongly recommend and advocate for.

Data Helps Us Help Students

First, California Competes recommends that CBE programs record student activity as extensively as possible to identify breaks in enrollment, and determine when fast intervention is necessary.

“Just as the average person stops working out months before canceling their gym membership, the average student in a CBE program can stop engaging well before formally withdrawing or failing to reregister,” the report notes. “To accurately and quickly estimate breaks in enrollment, CBE programs should collect a wide range of student data—communicating with instructors or other students, accessing online textbooks and other course materials, turning in assignments, and taking exams—and use the data to establish and refine proxies for stopping out and dropping out.”

This is our conclusion too, and it is facilitated by our online curriculum. We’re able to keep a record of every time a student logs in to their course, takes a quiz, reaches out to a counselor, and more. Data collection is only one part of the equation. Figuring out when a student’s pattern of interactions warrants an intervention — and how to effectively offer it — is a complex issue. We’re always iterating and trying to find ways to more effectively engage our students when and how they need it. But that wouldn’t be possible at all if we weren’t keeping track of how they engage our systems. The data is crucial.

Set Clear Expectations

Second, the California Competes report recommends that CBE programs “establish, refine, and share with students explicit study time expectations for programs.”

This is both essential and difficult, because the whole point of CBE programs is that they’re flexibly paced. Not only do we specifically design our curriculum around our students' lives so that they advance when they can, not when we tell them too, but each student will come in with different experiences and abilities. Some students will be able to skip ahead quickly based on what they already can do, while other students will need to take extra time on skills that are difficult for them. 

CBE programs make all of that possible, but how can we effectively set study time expectations?

At Calbright, we’ve found that the best practice is to develop those expectations directly with a student, based on their own lives. Our data clearly shows that students who put in regular study times are more likely to succeed. So instead of telling them “here are the goals you have to hit,” we ask them: “how frequently do you think you can study?” If they think they can put in five hours a week, then we’ll set expectations around that. If they’re trying to finish their program in six months, or a year, we help them figure out what that’s going to take in their lives and how they can make it work. 

So yes, explicit study time expectations for programs are crucial — but they can also be customized. We can work with students to determine the expectations that work with their lives, and then strive together to keep them.

Keep Track of Outcomes

Finally, California Competes recommends incorporating CBE programs into California’s “Cradle-to-Career” data system, which tracks career outcomes for graduates of different college programs.

The report acknowledges that this is going to require time and effort, but we agree with the recommendation 100%. 

These recommendations are critical validation points for Calbright, and they’re also crucial for the California Community Colleges system as a whole, as the CCC system follows Calbright’s lead and begins integrating more CBE programs into its offerings. We are proud to help establish these best practices, because the more they’re implemented system-wide the more students will benefit. 

“CBE presents a new challenge to measuring progress in postsecondary education that calls for new measures, particularly in the California Community Colleges (CCC), where the imminent expansion of CBE has implications for millions of undergraduates in the state,” the report notes.

It’s an exciting — and challenging — opportunity.