Standardized Tests in College?

When U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings suggested a year ago that American colleges and universities consider using standardized tests to measure performance, the outrage in academia was loud and swift. Critics worry that No Child Left Behind type accountability measures are being unleashed on college campuses.

But now some influential college leaders seem to have had a change of heart. This week, two big consortiums of public colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC), agreed to launch a Web site that will allow applicants, their parents and legislators to compare undergraduate experiences, costs and eventually—test scores that measure "student outcomes." 

Participating colleges will begin administering standardized tests to see how much test scores measuring writing, analytic ability and critical thinking go up for students between freshman and senior year. The site, called College Portrait,  is still being tested but a preliminary version is now online. There are about 550 member schools in the two groups. So far, about half have agreed to become part of College Portrait.

The consortiums are reacting, at least in part, to Spellings's call for colleges to be transparent about their costs and what students were getting in exchange for their tuition. She challenged institutions to devise new measures—namely to start using standardized tests—to figure out how much students were learning and to make public information about how graduates fared in the job market or in graduate school.

"The Spellings Commission was a catalyst," says David Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs at NASULGC. "It pointed us in a direction that we didn't want to go—which was mandatory testing. But most schools have come to understand what the test is and the need for it."

Over the next year, participating institutions will provide information on a three-page template that describes degree offerings and class profiles—details that can be found in almost any college guide. The institutions will also begin adding details about expenses, including a college-cost calculator, so students can compare the cost of a four-year degree from one school with another. The participating schools will also provide results from student surveys about campus life as well as scholastic and intellectual engagement.

But perhaps the biggest shift is that College Portrait institutions have four years to begin administering standardized tests to freshman and seniors. At the end of four years, the results of those tests will be made public. Why the wait? "Some schools will begin reporting right away but in general, we didn't feel that our institutions had enough experience with outcome testing" to demand colleges post the data immediately, says Schulenburger. They are tricky to administer and interpret, he adds.

Loren Crabtree, chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says it's crucial to supply more information about college so prospective students and parents can make informed decisions. "None of us are happy with multiple-choice exams," says Crabtree. "And we need some time to figure out what is a good test, what is a good sample and how do we interpret those results. But we need to do it so we can make the case to families and students for higher education." He says his school will also show learning outcomes by going public with how University of Tennessee graduates do on grad-school admission tests like GRE's, MCATs and LSATs, as well as state and professional licensing exams.

University of California president Robert C. Dynes said in a letter to NASULGC that he would not be providing this kind of information for his nine campuses because "the University has concluded that using standardized tests on an institutional level as measures of student learning 1) fails to recognize the diversity, breadth, and depth of discipline-specific knowledge and learning that takes place in colleges and universities today and 2) usurps the role of campus and departmental faculty in assessing student learning." The University of California system intends to set up its own database.

Private universities, which rely less on public funding, aren't rushing to embrace standardized test for their students either. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which is made up of 1,000 private institutions, unveiled their own Web site, UCAN, in September. The site, which has logged more than 100,000 visitors, lists facts about the schools such as the gender breakdown of undergraduates, what kinds of degrees are offered, tuition trends and the percentage of undergraduates enrolled there who get a diploma in five years.

Will prospective students learn how students from private universities fare on standardized tests? "Hundreds of private colleges do use the kind of standardized testing that the public colleges are using," says NAICU spokesman Tony Pals, "but we are not requiring that our institutions report that information. Our position is that colleges should have the choice to evaluate student learning the best way they see fit. The federal government should not be prescribing which learning outcomes those institutions should chose."

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