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Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

The Push For More Data (And Standardized Testing?) In Colleges

University students, pictured in a lecture hall in 2008.

Standardized tests measure the quality of education in the nation’s K-12 schools. Some like it, some don’t, but it’s been the reality at least since the passage of the No Child Left Behind act in 2001.

Could it soon be a reality in the nation’s colleges too? From The New York Times:

Students in elementary, middle and high schools take standardized tests whose results are made public, inviting anyone to assess, however imperfectly, a school’s performance. There is no comparable trove of public data for judging and comparing colleges.

Pieces of such a system may be taking shape, however, with several kinds of national assessments — including, most controversially, standardized tests — gaining traction in recent years. More than 1,000 colleges may be using at least one of them. 

We’ve reported on the emergence of “data-driven instruction” in K-12 education, which relies on a combination of low-stakes and high-stakes testing to measure students’ progress. A report from the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, cited in The Times‘ story, calls for something that sounds similar.

“There are significant differences within colleges and universities in the degree of
academic engagement among students,” the report reads. “Gathering evidence concerning the degree to which students are actively engaged in academically challenging work can also suggest ways in which student learning can be enhanced.”

While the New Leadership Alliance report doesn’t explicitly mention the use of standardized tests, it does open the door for their use.

There are, of course, college rankings from US News & World Report and Forbes. But Joanne Jacobs writes these are not ideal benchmarks.

But is standardized testing any better? A 2008 report from the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, also cited by the Times, concludes the use of standardized measurements could harm students:

Standards of assessment that focus on what is easily measured run the risk of degrading the quality of the education that students receive (via pressure to teach to the test or only to learn for the test) and of diverting attention from the harder-to-measure but more important roles that our institutions play in fostering a thoughtful, engaged and broadly-educated citizenry.

Hilary Pennington, the director of special initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, disagrees with that assessment.

“Welcome data and be transparent about results,” she advises colleges in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary. “You can’t get better unless you know where you are.”

What do you think — does Pennington have a point? Or will standardized testing “degrade quality” of a college education? Should the principle of “accountability” that’s come to dominate K-12 education policy be applied to higher ed as well?

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