PLA, CLEP and AP | Confessions of a Community College Dean

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On Thursday I sat in on a webinar about prior learning assessment (PLA). PLA is a catchall term for a set of processes by which students can be awarded academic credit for proving that they’ve already achieved the skills that would be taught in a certain class. For example, an experienced office manager who never went to college might be able to place out of the Intro to Computers class, given the chance.

The goal of awarding credit by PLA is to shorten students’ paths to graduation, thereby reducing both time and cost. Apparently, students who receive credit through PLA are much likelier to graduate than those who don’t. The host of the webinar referred to PLA as a “loss leader,” meaning that the credits “given away” up front are more than made up by credits taken on the way to graduation that otherwise wouldn’t have been taken at all.

It was a productive webinar, and I was glad I was there. Later, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why different flavors of PLA register so differently.

For example, AP and IB exams are essentially forms of PLA, and they’re accepted by many of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country. Some colleges give actual credit and some only allow for placement — skip the intro class but replace it with a higher-level one — but there’s still some basic deference shown to the exams. Although AP and IB don’t have age requirements, as far as I know, they’re typically taken by traditional-age students who are still in high school. When people talk about PLA, they typically don’t mean AP or IB.

CLEP and DSST exams function similarly, though they’re much less well-known. CLEP exams are usually taken by students beyond high school age; DSST, in my limited experience, tends to be connected to the military. Both are nationally recognized mechanisms by which students can test out of certain classes. For example, a native speaker of Spanish might “CLEP out” of a Spanish class, thereby picking up some credits toward a degree. CLEP and DSST are much more commonly thought of as PLA than AP or IB are.

In some disciplines, it’s more common to see more bespoke measures. Those might include departmentally written challenge exams, auditions or portfolios. At a previous college, for instance, we had a veteran student apply who had been a photographer in the military. He submitted a portfolio of his work to be exempted from the Intro to Photography class. Given the subject matter and the nature of the work, a portfolio made much more sense than a standardized exam would have. For colleges concerned about a conflict of interest in grading portfolios, CAEL provides rigorous screening by an objective third party.

To my mind, these are different flavors of the same thing. But they’re treated very differently across sectors.

With AP and IB, for instance, there may be variations in the scores that various schools will take, but nearly everybody takes them one way or another. (For example, with AP, we give credit for 3 and above, but Rutgers only gives credit for 4 and above. Yes, that creates issues upon transfer.) But more bespoke forms of PLA get much more resistance upon transfer.

Ideally, they should be treated the same way. If we certify that a student has met the goals of Intro to Hypothetical Studies, then that should be treated the same way as if we gave the student a B in Intro to Hypothetical Studies.

I can’t help but wonder if some of the disparate reception is a reflection of the profile of the students who take each type of test. The students who apply to selective places have often taken quite a few AP or IB classes while in high school, so the tests are familiar. The students who take CLEP exams, or submit portfolios of work done at work in their 20s and 30s, don’t resemble the students that selective places typically accept. The learning outcomes measured are the same, but the deference shown often isn’t.

Community colleges, as a sector, are looking at ways to be more open to (and about) PLA options. It’s part of our equity work. But we need our four-year partners to step up and do the same. Otherwise, we’re just postponing disappointment.