College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The Advantages of Alternative Certifications for Students

By Allan Collins & Roy Pea — October 18, 2011 5 min read
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More and more students are acquiring knowledge and skills outside school, and yet traditional schools still have a virtual monopoly on certifying whether a student’s knowledge is sufficient. Adults and children are taking online courses, working with remote human or computer-based tutors, and participating in online communities with a focus on learning. But if they fail to enroll in a school or college to complete their diploma or degree requirements, these plugged-in learners often receive little credit for their accomplishments.

The General Educational Development, or GED, credential offers alternative certification for students, but it comes with low status educationally. Hence, the American Council on Education, which administers it, is revamping the GED to connect it to the new Common Core State Standards Initiative.

There are also technical-proficiency certifications from companies such as Cisco, Microsoft, and Novell, as well as from technical societies, but these have limited scope. For example, the Cisco Networking Academies provide free curriculum and assessment resources online for their program that prepares learners to take the first Cisco certification exam. Recently, the Mozilla Foundation, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, launched a competition to develop “Badges for Lifelong Learning,” which would certify student learning outside school. Many states have developed alternative certifications for teachers, but none for students.

As we rethink education in the digital age, we need to reconsider how students are deemed proficient in terms of the skills and knowledge they develop outside the standard classroom environment.

Toward that end, we think it would be possible to develop national certification exams for all subject areas addressed in the new common-core standards in English/language arts and mathematics, which most states have now adopted. There could be exams for competencies in reading at the 9th or 12th grade level, algebra, and introductory calculus. Other standards have appeared or are emerging: The new National Academy of Sciences’ K-12 science education framework will lead to revised standards for science education; release of new national geography standards is due in 2011; and the national curriculum standards for social studies appeared in 2010. Such new standards would enable other exams in high school physics, world geography, and other disciplines. These exams could be administered in schools or learning centers, such as those run by Sylvan Learning or Kaplan, to anyone who wanted to take them, for a small fee to cover administrative costs.

We need to reconsider how students are deemed proficient in terms of the skills and knowledge they develop outside the standard classroom environment."

When it comes to certifying knowledge, students could take exams when they felt they were ready and as many times as they liked until they passed. The standard for passing could be set quite high, comparable to the proficiency level of the National Assessment of Educational Progress or for Advanced Placement exams, but the new exams could also reflect different levels of expertise (e.g., different levels of reading proficiency). The exams could be administered and scored by computer, with a report submitted automatically to students, analyzing their results and suggesting learning resources and activities for improving their performance.

Students could prepare for the exams many different ways: They could take online courses through a virtual school or other venue, listen to lectures or demonstrations online, read books, get tutoring face to face or via the Internet, or play engaging games designed to support disciplinary learning and reasoning. Computer-based tutors might prepare students for the exams, but the certifications themselves would be independent of a student’s preparation methods and require a high level of knowledge and skill to pass.

Careful thought would need to go into the design of the certification record. Students could accumulate as many certifications as they wanted, which would become part of their certification records. Those records might include the dates and number of times a student sat for each exam, as well as his or her scores on each exam. Alternatively, information on prior attempts to pass the exam could be discarded after a person passed it.

In addition, colleges could specify a set of required and optional certifications for entry for anyone who wanted to apply through an alternative-certification route. Likewise, employers could specify certifications they felt were needed for any employee they might hire. These could differ from employer to employer. For example, certifications for travel agencies would differ from those for auto-repair shops and for hospitals. Different jobs for each employer might also require different certifications. Given the importance of human-capital development to the performance of the U.S. economy, the U.S. departments of Labor and Commerce could have a vested interest as collaborators in the development of such alternative certifications.

The exam system could publish online specifications, with examples that described what potential applicants must do to pass an exam. Students then would know how to prepare, and their parents or advisers could help them assess whether they were ready for an examination. Both nonprofit and for-profit providers could produce directories of services that learners could use to develop the proficiencies tested by the exams.

The system could start as an alternative funded on a trial basis, by federal agencies, private foundations, and other stakeholders, to see how well it took hold nationally and whether it produced the desired effects on learning in America. The states might elect to participate as part of their efforts to develop education aligned with the new common-core standards. Importantly, there should be funding for studies from the outset to track the progress of the system and any problems that might arise.

A national certification-exam system has the virtue that the certifications specify much more precisely than a diploma or transcript what the learner knows and can do. Such a system could reflect our national goals for education and the high standards we want students to meet. It need not interfere in any way with the current system of education, although its disruptive potential as an innovation for certifying learning could develop into a widely used system over time.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Advantages of Alternative Certifications for Students


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