COVID-19 Will Disrupt Early Postsecondary CTE Credit Attainment: Don’t Make Learners Bear the Burden

The last weeks of March were a test of adaptability for the nation’s education institutions. Over the span of weeks, school districts, community/technical colleges and area technical centers had to amend remote learning policies amid unprecedented school closures. The rapid pace at which systems and institutions have adapted to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has been likened to turning a battleship at the pace of a speedboat.

Early Postsecondary Opportunities (EPSO) – which include dual enrollment, dual credit, concurrent enrollment and other related opportunities – play an important role in facilitating successful transitions between secondary and postsecondary education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately one-third of high school graduates take courses for postsecondary credit at some point during their educational careers. The integration of EPSO courses in Career Technical Education (CTE) pathways is creating options-rich, intuitive linkages between high school, college and career. This approach yields benefits to students, their families and their communities: earning postsecondary CTE credit in high school can lead to higher rates of college enrollment, persistence and success. But as schools, districts and colleges adapt to a new Coronavirus reality and a pervasive shift to online learning, where does that leave learners who are enrolled in CTE EPSO courses?

Coronavirus-related shutdowns put pressure on CTE EPSO courses in a number of ways:

  • Credit attainment and transfer: Many institutions have transitioned to binary (pass/ fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory) grading for the spring and summer 2020 terms in recognition of the myriad of equity and logistical challenges presented by an abrupt, unexpected move to online education. This approach attempts to hold the learner harmless in weathering this dramatic shift in their education. Binary grading may have a wide-ranging impact on the acceptance of transfer credit of which EPSO credit is a subset. Like transfer credit, EPSO credit enjoys wide acceptance, often guaranteed by state law or system governance, but those policies were not developed to account for widespread use of binary grading.
  • Applied curriculum: Hands-on learning is a key feature of CTE, and without access to school buildings, learners may face challenges in demonstrating all of the skills and competencies necessary to receive credit for coursework. Even as many postsecondary courses transition to online and remote delivery, many practical CTE courses have been suspended altogether or significantly scaled back. Similarly, programs that integrate work-based learning activities as an important component of the curriculum are struggling to gain access to clinical hours, internships and other high-value college and career crossover activities. There is an opportunity to look at thoughtful approaches that extend deadlines for course completion, leveraging competency-based approaches, badging, certifications, portfolios and challenge exams to document the attainment of learning outcomes by students.
  • Funding: Funding for EPSOs varies from state to state, but in most cases tuition is paid through a combination of state funding, support from the learners’ home districts and from the learners themselves. Funding to decrease the cost of participation is an important equity lever for states looking to ensure they have a strong, robust talent pipeline to address their current and future workforce needs. What happens if a class is suspended mid-semester of if a learner withdraws due to circumstances related to the Coronavirus? States and institutions will need to clarify how to address these cases.
  • Data and accountability: More than a dozen states are measuring postsecondary credit attainment as their CTE program quality indicator for the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) performance accountability system. Enrollment disruptions in the spring and summer 2020 terms will impact states’ performance benchmarks, and if closures continue into the fall, this will impact their first year of Perkins V reporting. The Coronavirus also threatens to affect the other secondary CTE program quality indicators, as many learners earn recognized postsecondary credentials or complete work-based learning opportunities through partnerships with postsecondary institutions. EPSO programs are built on partnership and require mutual support, understanding and investment by school districts and postsecondary institutions. These partnerships create a better opportunity pivot in approach and resource sharing.

The field has been quick to recognize these challenges, but given the decentralized nature of higher education – in most cases, articulation agreements for CTE credit are negotiated at the local level between individual districts and partner colleges – the response has been inconsistent and incomplete. This situation creates both challenges and opportunities.

So how can states respond to some of these challenges? Next week the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP) and Advance CTE will explore some strategies to minimize the burden on students and honor their commitment to learning.

This blog post is the first in a two-part series about the impacts of the Coronavirus on CTE dual enrollment. It was written by Amy Williams, Executive Director of NACEP, and Austin Estes, Manager of Data & Research for Advance CTE.

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