How Much Do Colleges Really Teach Students?

New Web sites make it possible for students to research how much education a school really offers.

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Until now, students shopping for a college couldn't get answers to some of their most important questions, such as "How much do students learn at this school?" That finally might finally be changing. A growing number of colleges are posting results of tests that gauge how much their students learn as undergraduates.

On Tuesday, a dozen online colleges launched www.collegechoicesforadults.org, a Web site that promises to report how their students score on standardized tests of college learning. Earlier this year, about 300 public colleges and universities launched www.collegeportraits.org, a site that also promises to reveal students' performance on standardized pregraduation tests. Some private not-for-profit schools are also reporting their students' performance on standardized tests. And a growing number of states are posting summaries of how various colleges' graduates do on postgraduate licensing exams, such as for nursing.

Of course, rankings including U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges have long given applicants a chance to compare colleges by factors such as their selectivity, their reputations, and their students' performance on standardized tests taken in high school. But college officials, who were typically happy to brag about how well their students had scored on standardized tests in high school, had long fought any attempt to gauge how well they taught students with standardized tests administered just before students received their bachelor's degree. College officials rebelled, for example, against a 2006 Bush administration proposal to require colleges to administer such tests and reveal the results. College administrators and professors argued that answering 108 multiple-choice questions, or writing a few essays in 90 minutes, wasn't a fair way to plumb what students had learned in four years and more than 30 different classes.

Some outside analysts say there were less noble reasons for the opposition as well. "Nobody likes being accountable," says Peter Ewell, vice president at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and an expert in college accountability. "They're afraid they won't be able to attract students" if they can't prove their graduates do well, he believes.

Now, however, Ewell says, "we are reaching a tipping point" that could spark more colleges to reveal how their students do on standardized college-level tests.

Michael Offerman, Capella University's vice chairman of external university initiatives and leader of the online schools' accountability effort, says giving applicants an easy way to see how well students in a college program succeed "is the holy grail" for anyone trying to balance the costs of higher education against the benefits. The new online college accountability site isn't solely driven by idealism, though. Many participants are hoping to erase perceptions of low quality that stigmatize online courses by proving that online students are learning and succeeding.

At least 14 online colleges are promising to eventually post results of their students' scores on the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress, or MAPP.

Each college also plans to give at least some material on how students in different majors perform. Besides Capella's data, the site will show results from other large for-profit online colleges such as Kaplan and American Intercontinental universities. It will also report results of some private not-for-profit colleges such as Western Governors University and Excelsior College. And it will feature a few public online institutions, such as Rio Salado and Charter Oak State colleges.

The University of Phoenix, the nation's largest online university, isn't participating in the new Web site. Last year, however, the for-profit college started publishing its own accountability report, including results of MAPP tests.

The public colleges that participate in collegeportraits.org have agreed that by 2012, they will post their students' results on the MAPP, the College Learning Assessment, or the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency. The public colleges participating in College Portraits will also report whether their scores put them above, at, or below the norm for colleges with similar student bodies.