The Measure of Learning
Can you test what colleges teach? Academics are appalled that the government wants to try
A combination of factors has prompted the government to rethink its historically hands-off policy toward higher education. They include a staggeringly high dropout rate, a perceived decline in international competitiveness, and sky-high tuitions. Nationwide, only 63 percent of entering freshmen will graduate from college within six yearsand fewer than 50 percent of black and Hispanic freshmen will. And while degree holders have far greater earning power than nondegree holders, the students who incur debt only to drop out are often worse off than if they had never attended college in the first place.
And debts they have. A year of tuition at Harvard cost Henry Adams $75, or nearly $1,750 in today's dollars. Now, four years at a public in-state, four-year college costs $65,400, up more than 27 percent in the past five years. Four years at a private school costs more than $133,000. In the past 30 years, the average constant-dollar cost of a degree from a private school has more than doubled. So it's hardly surprising that college students with loans graduate with an average of $19,000 in debt.
Yet an expensive degree does not necessarily a literate citizen make. In 2003, the government surveyed college graduates to test how well they could read texts and draw inferences. Only 31 percent were able to complete these basic tasks at a proficient level, down from 40 percent a decade earlier. Fewer than half of all college students, other studies show, graduate with broad proficiency in math and reading. And, according to Bok, evidence suggests that several groups of college students, particularly blacks and Hispanics, consistently underperform levels expected of them given their SAT scores and high school grades.
It is just these sorts of reports that have triggered the government's demands for greater accountability. "It was always assumed that higher education knew what it was doing," says John Simpson, president of the University at Buffalo-SUNY. "Now, the government wants provable results."
There are currently two major tools used to measure student learning in college. The Collegiate Learning Assessment, administered to freshmen and seniors, measures critical thinking and analytical reasoning. About 120 schools use itthough nearly all keep the results confidential. Hundreds of schools also administer the National Survey of Student Engagement, which tracks how much time students spend on educational and other activitiesa proxy for value added. Colleges have also made efforts to monitor student satisfaction, faculty effectiveness, and best classroom practices. The problem is, schools largely keep these results from the public.
Many graduate programs require standardized tests for admission, from the Graduate Record Exam to the more specialized tests for law, medicine, and business. So demonstrating a college's effectiveness could be as simple a matter as tabulating its graduates' pass rates on those exams. But many colleges have no way to determine if their graduates take these exams or how well they score. Nor, colleges argue, can they easily and comprehensively monitor starting salary, graduate school acceptance, or years spent in debt. This is despite the prodigious data-gathering capabilities of the fundraisers in the alumni office.