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Standardized tests for Higher Education?

A federal panel has recommended that standardized testing be implemented at all public colleges.

The first thing that occurs to me is that this would mean that colleges would have to create a standardized curriculum - beyond core classes or gen-ed requirements. That to me seems like the beginning of a really bad idea on (at least) two points: First, the emphasis will be on teaching to the test, which is what we see in public elementary and high schools already, and which seems to gain us little or no ground in terms of quality of education. Second, and more philosophically, our educational system, by design, is already in the business of training obedient workers, not agile thinkers and innovators - only the bone-deep neophiles transcend that early enough to take responsibility for becoming educated, and not merely trained.

There are a large number of majors that are fundamentally incompatible with the whole notion of standardized testing. How do you create a standardized test for a philosophy student (for example) without reducing the entire subject to either a trivial history of people and events or a mere taxonomy of ideas?

The best (ie, those that have given me the most lasting value) courses that I took in college had little or no content that could be quantified in the way required to produce a standardized test on that material. I took a history of physics course to understand James Joyce better. I took classes in psychology in order to understand better the processes and development of human reasoning for the benefit of my exploration of philosophy. How in damnation can that be reduced to a series of fill-in-the-dots answers? Hell, I'm not sure I ever got any answers. What I can say I'm sure of is that I wasn't there merely to aggregate facts, and regurgitate them later.

I think that the obsession with finding a valid metric for every aspect of our lives is damaging in the long run, because it thrusts upon us the notion there exists a canon of knowledge necessary for success, and that learning beyond that canon has little or no direct benefit on our success as a society.

Baselines for literacy and mathematics should certainly be established and maintained, but those are merely the precursors of education, and are not in themselves hallmarks of a quality education. It seems to me that in the eyes of our metrically obsessed bureaucrats and institutions, they have become exactly that- the result is that the means is conflated with the end.


The New York Times Article referred to and linked above is reprinted here for archival purposes:

Panel's Report Urges Higher Education Shake-Up
Published: August 11, 2006

WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 – A federal commission approved a final report on Thursday that urges a broad shake-up of American higher education. It calls for public universities to measure learning with standardized tests, federal monitoring of college quality and sweeping changes in financial aid.

The panel also called on policy makers and leaders in higher education to find new ways to control costs, saying college tuition should grow no faster than median family income, although it opposed price controls.

The report recommended bolstering Pell grants, the basic building block of federal student aid, by making the program cover a larger percentage of public college tuition. That proposal could cost billions of dollars.

Eighteen of the 19 members of the panel, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, voted to sign the report, which attacked increasing tuition costs and pointed to signs of complacency on some campuses. David Ward, who as president of the largest association of colleges and universities was the most powerful representative of the higher education establishment on the commission, refused to sign.

Calling the report "a shot across the bow," Dr. Ward said that academia would take it seriously, but that he wanted to remain "free to contest" it. Several proposals, including those on testing and financial aid, aroused fierce opposition from university leaders and at points divided the panel.

The chairman, Charles Miller, an investor and a former chairman of the University of Texas Regents, had hoped to turn out a punchy report that would rattle academia with warnings of crisis.

But in the last six weeks, the commission issued six drafts, watering down passages that had drawn criticism and eliminating one this week, written by Mr. Miller, that had encouraged expanding private loans as a share of student financial aid.

A proposal on standardized tests was also weakened at the last moment. Previous drafts said that "states should require" public universities to use standardized test, but the final version said simply that universities "should measure student learning” with standardized tests.

All the panel members who participated in a meeting on Thursday at the Education Department headquarters here expressed unanimity on some points, including that the report correctly identified critical challenges like increasing access to higher education for poor students and holding institutions more accountable for students who drop out or graduate with few skills.

The members seemed at odds on how to carry their recommendations forward. Some, like former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, called on President Bush to incorporate them in the Congressional agenda.

Mr. Miller said the next step should be more "national dialogue" with governors and corporate leaders. He seemed upset by what he characterized as wrangling with representatives of the status quo.

"You can't act on the recommendations today because you encounter one set of defenders and then behind them another set of defenders, and you get into all these battles," he told reporters after the panel voted.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings established the panel a year ago, drawing members from sectors of higher education like community colleges, for-profit trade schools, liberal arts colleges and large research universities, public and private, as well as from the ranks of executives at I.B.M., Boeing, Microsoft and other businesses.

The commission was created at a time of increasing tuitions. From 1999 to 2004, median family income grew 13 percent and average tuition 38 percent, according to federal data cited in an interview by Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist on the commission.

Ms. Spellings urged the group to examine access, affordability and accountability, to determine whether colleges were turning out students qualified to compete in the global economy. The answer in too many cases, the panel said, is that they are not.

"Too many Americans just aren't getting the education that they need," the report said. "There are disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing and thinking skills we expect of college graduates."

A spokeswoman for Ms. Spellings, Katherine McLane, said, "The commission has made bold recommendations on improving the accessibility and affordability of higher education, to which the secretary intends to give very serious consideration."

One recommendation that won broad support was for changing immigration laws to help foreign scientists who graduate from American universities obtain green cards.

Dr. Ward's organization, the American Council on Education, is the major coordinating body for all higher education institutions, public and private. Leaders of some of the associations that belong to the council, like the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the American Association of Community Colleges, embraced the report as a helpful statement of priorities.

Other important groups in the council issued withering critiques.

The Association of American Universities, which represents 60 top research universities, noted that the report "deals almost exclusively with undergraduate education."

Robert M. Berdahl, a former chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is president of the universities association, said, "What is needed is something much richer, with a more nuanced understanding of the educational engagement and how it is undertaken."

Another council member, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 900 private institutions including liberal arts colleges, major research universities and church- and other faith-related colleges, attacked the recommendation to develop a national database to follow individual students' progress as a way of holding colleges accountable for students' success.

The association called the proposal a dangerous intrusion on privacy, saying, "Our members find this idea chilling."

Several groups said the report spent much ink discussing increases in students' work skills, while slighting the mission of colleges and universities to educate students as citizens.