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Lydia Dobyns Headshot

Digital Badges: The Great Equalizer?

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It's time to "blow-up" our antiquated college admissions process. The archaic ritual of getting into college by SAT/ACT scores and GPAs has outlived its usefulness. We need to take drastic action if for no other reason than to recognize the crisis we have with students who score well enough on the SAT/ACT to be admitted to colleges, only to fail to graduate once they begin a post-secondary education. We need to replace the current system with one that measures mastery of knowledge AND skills, and is accessible to all.

Let's swap out the one-dimensional process (grades and test scores) and introduce relevancy and readiness. It's time to create a process that is fair and equitable for all students, whether they live in rural Indiana or urban New York. We need to introduce an effective and independent methodology that is relevant.

If all we do is focus on the high school education, we are missing the boat. We also should encourage colleges and universities to subject themselves to the same question: is the college education we are providing relevant? The answer cannot be that 75% of our students not being ready for college falls completely on high schools to change ... it's time for colleges to feel the same accountability pressure.

Can digital badges be the answer? Education Secretary, Arne Duncan said in a recent announcement, "badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency ... and badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings."

Digital badges, which will broaden the ways that students acquire and demonstrate, document and display their skills, are still in the fledgling stage. A contest sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation to determine the actual details of the badges is currently underway.

A digital badge system needs to be put in place on a national level with objective calibration that assures equal access. College admissions today are centered on content -- how well a student can memorize facts. We need to discard that procedure, one that rewards a student based on how well the adults in their lives navigate the college admissions process, and measure instead how well students have gathered the skills to be able to succeed after high school.

It's time to alleviate some of the dread that drains our high school students of their joy for learning and replace the current outdated method with an approach that is fair and designed to give all students a chance at a quality education.

The digital badge program needs to have relevancy in students' lives. Done right, it should be a way to assess college readiness -- ascertaining critical thinking, work ethics, oral collaboration and school-wide learning. We need to offer college admissions officers a way to know a student beyond what is in the transcript because we understand that the transcript is not predictive of how well a student will do in college. Despite decades of steadily climbing enrollment rates, the percentage of students graduating from college is barely increasing, according to the Complete College America study.

I believe we now have a real opportunity to finally enable a college admissions officer to objectively determine a student's likelihood of success. If we establish a digital badge program that can truly measure a student's ability to work collaboratively, think creatively and plan appropriately, we just might surprise ourselves with an end product that actually captures the true effect of what the student has done.

All students need access to a quality college education. We must find a new way for colleges to better assess true student achievement. Done right, the digital badge program will be able to objectively quantify student work and learning and assure our students are not at the mercy of an outmoded and restrictive college admissions system.