Pearson Research Report Recommends Best Practices for Assessment in Competency-Based Education

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Researchers: Long-Term Viability of Competency-Based Education Programs Should Align Credentials to Employability

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Competency-based education (CBE) programs are growing in popularity as an alternative path to a postsecondary degree. Freed from the seat-time constraints of traditional higher education programs, CBE students can progress at their own pace and complete their postsecondary education having gained relevant and demonstrable skills. The report, “Measuring Mastery: Best Practices for Assessment in Competency-Based Education,” released by Pearson, explains how sound assessment principles and lessons learned can be applied to CBE programs. In collaboration with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Pearson’s Director of the Center for College & Career Success, Katie McClarty, Ph.D., and Senior Research Scientist, Matthew Gaertner, Ph.D., posit that CBE’s long-term viability hinges on the credibility of these programs’ credentials in the eyes of employers. That credibility, in turn, depends on the quality of the assessments used to determine who earns a credential.

This paper is the third in a series examining competency-based higher education from a number of perspectives. AEI will host a discussion of competency-based education research on May 21, 2015 at 3:30 p.m.– 5:00 p.m. ET, at 1150 Seventeenth Street, NW, Washington, D.C., featuring the authors of three new CBE-focused papers and other higher education experts. Register to attend, or to watch live online, click here on May 21 at 3:00 p.m. Presenters will include Pearson’s Katie McClarty, Excelsior College’s John Ebersole, Parthenon-EY’s Chip Franklin, Seton Hall University’s Robert Kelchen, and Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Carol Geary Schneider.

In summarizing the paper’s findings, Katie McClarty notes that “CBE programs have generally done a good job defining the relevant competencies, that is, what students need to know, and what they’ll learn. The next critical step will be gathering empirical evidence that documents the relationship between competency mastery and future success. We’re honored to partner with AEI to release this report that advances our ability to help students progress at their own pace. We believe the findings will help to better evaluate an individual’s level of mastery, while ensuring that future employees have the capabilities they need to achieve their career goals and meet the growing demands of the workforce.”

The report reviews two frameworks: the first describes industry standards for developing and validating assessments, and the second focuses on determining mastery. The frameworks are then applied to existing prior-learning assessments and CBE programs, concluding with a set of recommendations for institutions implementing or planning to implement CBE programs. The paper concludes with four recommendations:

-CBE programs should clearly define their competencies and clearly link those competencies to material covered in their assessments.
-To support valid test-score interpretations, CBE assessments should be empirically linked to external measures such as future outcomes.
-Those empirical links should be used in the standard-setting process to enable providers to develop cut scores that truly differentiate masters from non-masters.
-CBE programs should track graduates’ later-life outcomes to provide evidence that a CBE credential stands for a level of preparation equivalent to a traditional postsecondary degree.

For additional competency-based education resources, including Pearson's CBE Readiness and Assessment Framework, please visit

Notes to the Editor:

About the Authors:

Katie McClarty leads the Center for College & Career Success. She heads a team of researchers in planning and executing research in support of the Center mission, which is to (1) identify and measure the skills needed to be successful in college and careers, (2) determine pathways for students to be college and career ready, (3) track their progress along the pathway, and (4) evaluate effective ways to keep students on track. Dr. McClarty has authored papers, chapters, and presentations related to college readiness, standard setting, assessment design, gifted and talented education, computer-based testing, and self-concept. Her work has been published in journals such as the American Psychologist, Research in Higher Education, Applied Measurement in Education, and Educational Researcher. Dr. McClarty holds a doctorate degree in social and personality psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

Matthew Gaertner is a senior research scientist in the Center for College & Career Success. His methodological interests include multilevel models, categorical data analysis, and Item Response Theory. Substantively, his research focuses on the effects of educational policies and reforms on disadvantaged students’ access, persistence, and achievement. Dr. Gaertner’s work has been published in Harvard Law Review, Harvard Educational Review, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Research in Higher Education and Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice. He received the 2013 and 2011 Charles F. Elton Best Paper Awards from the Association for Institutional Research, and was named Outstanding Doctoral Graduate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he earned a Ph.D. in Research and Evaluation Methodology. Dr. Gaertner holds a BA from Georgetown University.

About Pearson

Pearson is the world’s leading learning company, with 40,000 employees in more than 80 countries working to help people of all ages to make measurable progress in their lives through learning. For more information about Pearson, visit

Media Contacts:

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MediaServices(at)aei(dot)org or 202.862.5829

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