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Next: No Collegian Left Behind?

If the debate over standardized testing in public schools is beginning to die down, a new one may soon flare up.

A new federal commission studying the future of higher education in America is likely to try to nudge the system toward some form of standardized testing, said its chairman, Charles Miller. He said colleges and universities are letting students down – requiring less stringent work, less classroom time and lower standards – and Americans need to ensure they’re getting the best system of education possible in a competitive world.

Many academics despise the idea of standardized testing, arguing that university learning is too broad and various to be measured by a single test, and such tests are a poor way to measure the “higher-order thinking” taught at universities. Still, the idea of establishing more yardsticks for effectiveness is becoming a big part of planning at schools in the Inland Northwest and around the country.

“I like the concept of setting learning goals, measuring them and then improving what you’re doing to get there,” said Doug Baker, who oversees academic programs at the University of Idaho. “My concern with standardized testing is that it tends to focus on facts and figures. … That’s a pretty shallow level of understanding or education.”

At Washington State University, provost Bob Bates sounds a similar note. Schools should do a better job of measuring their performance, he said, but a standardized test is a poor way to do it.

“The basics for K-12 are pretty consistent and pretty well-known – the old reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic,” Bates said last week. “In higher education, people are getting an education in a much broader range of areas.”

But Miller and other critics of higher ed say students aren’t getting as good an education as they used to. The number of Americans with college degrees is rising, but average literacy scores in the country are falling, according to a recent assessment of adult literacy by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Even testing supporters acknowledge that implementing any kind of a standardized test in higher ed would be extremely difficult. Institutions vary greatly in their styles and offerings, and tenured professors – already a difficult kind of cat to herd – value academic freedom highly. For some, that very liberty is part of the problem.

“At most universities, the faculty decides what to teach, and they often teach what their research is,” said Richard Phelps, an author and proponent of standardized testing. “I think it’s true that once faculty get tenured, they really don’t have to do all that much – most of them do … but there are some that don’t. Most faculty can do whatever they please. They set their own standards.”

Alphabet soup

The standardized test has probably never had more influence in American life.

You take one to get a driver’s license. Colleges and universities use them to choose students, and many professions require them. Public schools are now wrestling with the fact that 10th-graders can’t graduate without passing one. The alphabet soup of test names makes up a familiar list: SAT, ACT, GRE, WASL, ISAT.

The tests in grades K-12 – the WASL in Washington, and the ISAT in Idaho – have been hotly debated, opposed by educators and others who say that the tests distort the curriculum and measure only passive learning and rote memory. Supporters say schools need to be held to a measurable standard and improved. Starting this year, students can’t graduate without passing the tests, and schools risk losing federal funding if they perform poorly on them.

Testing is the centerpiece of President Bush’s controversial education reform, No Child Left Behind. Miller, the chairman of the higher education commission, helped create the blueprint for that act with his work on standardized testing in Texas, where he served on the state Board of Regents and worked to bring standardized testing and performance reviews to universities.

In an interview last week from his Houston office, Miller said the commission isn’t considering anything mandatory with regard to testing but may encourage schools to adopt the concept. The Texas system of universities uses the Collegiate Learning Assessment and will soon be reviewing the early results.

“It’s clear that some kind of assessments (is) needed,” Miller said.

Peter Sacks, an author and longtime critic of standardized testing, said he agrees that higher ed needs to be more accountable – just not in this manner.

Sacks said colleges and universities are failing to serve the whole public, disproportionately excluding the poor and minorities in a race to “maximize their prestige position in the marketplace.”

A big part of that is the use of standardized tests to define high-performing students, Sacks said, when, in fact, the tests do not predict whether a student will do well in class. Sacks added that the tests tend to favor students who are rich, white and male.

“This is a terrible idea,” Sacks said of requiring standardized testing in postsecondary schools. “I foresee an outright rebellion among college professors.”

The whole elephant

America’s system of higher education is something like the elephant in the famous fable – what you think of it has a lot to do with which part you’re holding. Community colleges and liberal arts colleges serve different populations, and in a different way. Land-grant schools have a different mission from that of Ivy League institutions.

Measuring and comparing the overall effectiveness of colleges and universities is difficult. College rankings like those compiled by U.S. News and World Report try every year, and universities generally complain that the comparisons are misleading or shallow – though they also trumpet the news when they do well.

Still, there is a growing sense that universities need to be more accountable.

A lot of this comes from the institutions themselves – WSU is implementing a system of “benchmarking” to measure a variety of internal targets, and setting goals to help meet the state’s effort to kick up degree production.

Baker said the UI has made accountability one of its main goals, with an eye toward making sure students emerge from their academic programs with the proper range of skills.

“We have a sea change in higher education right now,” he said. “Universities need to figure out how to play as an orchestra and not a bunch of soloists we hope will come together as an orchestra.”

Baker agrees that there is no single score card for measuring and comparing schools. But he argues a score card based on standardized testing would falsely portray a school’s effectiveness.

The more you standardize a test to apply across many institutions, the more you gravitate toward general, simplistic ways of measuring knowledge, he said.

For example, he said that learning to work in a team and draw on learning from different disciplines is a crucial skill for today’s graduates.

A standardized test would be hard-pressed to measure such learning, Baker said. And if it attempted to, it would likely distort the kind of instruction needed, shifting it more toward a lecture format and less toward hands-on learning, thereby preventing students from learning critical thinking, he added.

Baker’s comments reflect a long-standing criticism of standardized tests – that they force teachers to teach to the test, rather than teach students to think for themselves.

Einstein and Mitty

Baker provided an example of a different measure the UI has used, which led the school to make some changes.

For years, educators have known that some business-school graduates aren’t as good at bringing the various components of their education – from finance to management to marketing – fully and comprehensively to bear in a real company.

So about a decade ago, the faculty at UI changed their teaching approach. Business majors at the school now spend their full junior year in a single class that puts them in a team and requires them to use skills and knowledge from across the curriculum.

The students are learning in ways that may not correspond to a single, testable measure, he said, but it’s more valuable to them and their future employers.

Phelps and Miller argue that standardized testing doesn’t necessarily have to be shallow and based on memorization. They point to the College Learning Assessment, which asks students to take in a variety of sources of information and exhibit an ability to use those sources in complex ways. But Phelps also argues that it’s not such a bad thing to measure just facts and figures. Most work is based on so-called lower-order thinking. In other words, details and deadlines are important even in the world of abstract thought, he said.

And though higher-order thinking describes the efforts of a scientific genius like Albert Einstein, it also describes a persistent dreamer detached from reality, like the fictional Walter Mitty.

“He was a higher-order thinker, too,” Phelps said. “(That mental faculty) can be bad as well as good.”

Whatever comes of the discussion, it is unlikely that higher education would – or even could – adopt testing in the same way as grades K-12. But with the overwhelming movement toward assessment and accountability, Miller sees the tests as a probable part of the way schools are measured in the future.

“I believe there are some things about testing that are coming to higher education, regardless of what the commission does,” he said.

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