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Degree programs that award students credit by assessing their skills – rather than making them pass courses – have been touted by the Obama administration, members of Congress and many in higher education as a promising new innovation. But the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General this week threw some cold water on the enthusiasm for that model, known as direct assessment, criticizing how officials have allowed the first handful of programs of that type to become eligible for federal funding.  

The agency’s independent watchdog said in an audit that the department has not done enough to make sure that the direct assessment programs meet federal requirements before approving them.

Department staff should have more specific “risk areas” in mind when assessing the programs, the report says. For instance, the department should be on the lookout for programs allowing students to use federal aid to achieve credits that are awarded based merely on the skills students learn through life experiences; federal rules require students to actually have some sort of engagement with the learning resources a program offers.

The report also faults the department for not having created records that document the decision-making process for approving or denying direct assessment programs. But the report says the department has since begun maintain such records. In addition, the inspector general recommends that the department should do a better job of communicating with accreditors as it decides whether a direct assessment program has sufficient student-faculty involvement. Some accreditors have expressed frustration with how the department is approving new competency-based education programs, like direct assessment.

In responding to the report, the department agreed with most of the recommendations and pledged to reassess the risks that should be considered in approving direct assessment programs. It also said it would be soon issuing new formal guidance on direct assessment programs.  

The audit comes as the Obama administration and members of Congress are increasingly interested in allowing federal aid to flow to direct assessment programs – and, more generally, all types of programs that are structured around students’ knowledge rather than classroom time. The administration will soon grant regulatory waivers to a select number of colleges that want to experiment with competency-based education.