The Measure of Learning
Can you test what colleges teach? Academics are appalled that the government wants to try
Another key resource for evaluating schools is, of course, college rankingsthe Best Colleges list by U.S. News in particular. College rankings have been blamed for all manner of ills, from runaway tuition costs to unhealthy adolescent stress. But chief among critics' complaints is that U.S. News relies more on "inputs" such as SAT scores and the high school class ranks of admittees than "outputs" of the sort that Spellings wants to measure.
"U.S. News rankings heavily weight the wealth of a school, through things like spending per student, rather than how much a student learns," says Kevin Carey, a researcher at the nonpartisan think tank Education Sector.
Unless colleges release them, U.S. News does not have access to such data. But if such measures were incorporated, the rankings could change. Florida, for example, makes data about student learning public, often with surprising results. The average student at the University of Florida, for example, has SAT scores a full 100 points higher than those at Florida International University. There are fewer full-time faculty members at FIU, and only 4 percent of alumni donate money back to the school, compared with 18 percent of University of Florida grads. Those are just two reasons that the University of Florida ranks higher than FIU in the U.S. News list. Yet the average earnings of FIU gradsonly one measure, to be sureare significantly higher than those of their University of Florida counterparts.
The state of Texas also requires its public colleges to release more data. In a recent report, the state announced that the tiny University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa far outperformed the larger UT campuses in El Paso and Dallas on the Collegiate Learning Assessment. What's more, Permian Basin also had a greater percentage of students either employed or enrolled in a graduate program within a year after graduation for every year between 2001 and 2004, when compared with its counterparts in El Paso and Dallas.
These are the sorts of statistics students should consider when looking at colleges, guidance counselors say. In their absence, students look elsewhere for comparisonsto campus luxuries like room service or Jacuzzis, for instance, or to the success of a school's sports teams. "Students will choose a college because of its party reputation or its campus facilities or how many times it's been on ESPN, because they don't have a lot of other meaningful information to base their choice on," says Steve Goodman, an educational consultant and college counselor. The irony is that it's often easier to find statistics about a college football running back than it is to find, say, the college's expected graduation rate for black males from middle-class households.
Spellings, for her part, sees outcomes as inseparable from the college search process. She envisions a database on the Web where people can shop for a school the way they shop for a new caran analogy that incenses academics to no end. (These critics also point out that the Department of Education already maintains such a website, though it is far from user-friendly.)