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Educators Slam Federal Standardization Plans for Higher Ed

Part One of Two

by Shreema Mehta

A federal commission has recommended further standardization of policies evaluating post-secondary education, sparking concerns that instructors and students will lose out.

Oct. 3, 2006 – Teachers and education activists are lambasting a recent US Education Department body recommendation that colleges increase the standardized testing of students. Critics are calling the measure unnecessary and restrictive to students learning a wide range of subjects, and expensive in the face of deep federal cuts to higher education.

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The recommendation was part of a report issued by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which evaluated the nation’s colleges and universities and concluded that students have an increasingly difficult time applying for and matriculating in college, paying for their education and being prepared for post-college life.

To determine whether universities are effectively educating their students, the Commission says, universities should increase standardized testing through exams such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). It also recommends the creation of a federal database that would compile test results, as well as graduation rates, education costs and admissions data to help future students and parents consider universities.

"A number of recent studies highlight the shortcomings of post-secondary institutions in everything from graduation rates and time to degree to learning outcomes and even core literacy skills," the report read. "Student achievement, which is inextricably connected to institutional success, must be measured by institutions on a ‘value-added’ basis that takes into account students’ academic baseline when assessing results."

Increasing and using standardized tests, opponents argue, is not an effective way to evaluate the successes and failures of colleges.

The CLA is a writing exam that "simulate[s] complex, ambiguous situations that every successful college graduate may one day face," according to the nonprofit organization that produces the test in cooperation with the RAND Corporation think tank. A sample question instructs the test taker to write an office memo or make an argument for a presented opinion.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, in an "action plan" released in conjunction wiht the report, proposes to explore providing "incentives for states and institutions that collect and report student-learning outcome data."

Delaine Eastin, a professor at Mills College and a former state superintendent of public instruction for California, called the recommendation a way to extend the "wretched multiple-choice exams that most of the country is imposing on its children" to college students.

"Many of the issues raised by the [Commission's] report are important, but the idea of fixing it with a one-size-fits-all multiple-choice exam is frightening to me," she said. Though the CLA is not a multiple-choice exam, Eastin said, colleges that choose to increase the number of standardized tests they administer would, for financial reasons, likely pick multiple-choice exams.

"Because the cost of testing is so high, there’s a tendency to say we’ll do multiple choices because they’re cheaper to grade," she said. "When you do multiple-choice exams, there’s a tendency to do test prep where people are studying [for] the exam rather than studying to get an education."

The Commission calls for a federal database that would provide objective information for evaluating and comparing colleges.

Standardized testing is already an integral part of higher education, from placement exams for incoming students to licensing exams for recent graduates, said Catherine Boudreau, a professor of computer technology and former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the labor union National Education Association..

Increasing and using standardized tests, opponents argue, is not an effective way to evaluate the successes and failures of colleges.

Instead, colleges "should look to see if the courses have credentialed instructors, if the courses have met the standards they’ve set," Eastin said. "What kind of support is given to students having difficulty? It has a lot more to do with a qualitative evaluation."

The Commission, on the other hand, argues that high school students do not have access to adequate information about prospective colleges. It calls for a federal database that would fill this void.

"Despite increased attention to student learning results by colleges and universities and accreditation agencies, parents and students have no solid evidence, comparable across institutions, of how much students learn in colleges or whether they learn more at one college than another," the report read. "Similarly, policymakers need more comprehensive data to help them decide whether the national investment in higher education is paying off and how taxpayer dollars could be used more effectively."

The American Association of University Professors opposes the database, calling it an "unnecessary expense." "It would bring out the worst tendencies of bureaucracy and standardize everything to the lowest common denominator," John Curtis, the group’s research director, told The NewStandard.

"It’s actually belittling the choices students and families make now. Most people who are looking at college do a lot of research on their own," he said.

Although the Commission issued no mandates, Boudreau said the Department of Education’s incentive program could lead many universities to adopt its recommendations. "When you develop incentives for the ones who do [administer standardized testing], you penalize the ones who don’t," she said.

For Boudreau, creating incentives for universities to increase the testing of their students is an expensive and misguided way for the federal government to help improve the higher-education system.

"It’s a lot of money for standardized testing," she said, noting that the recommendation is part of the general shift toward standardization in the nation’s education system. "I don’t think the federal government should get into this micromanaging… of these kind of mandates," she said. "What the federal government should be doing is looking at accessibility, affordability" and "deep cuts in funding, in student-loan programs and the conversion of grants into interest-bearing loans."

The Department of Education has not finalized the incentive system or planned a federal database, according to DOE spokesperson Samara Yudof.

This article is part one in a two-part series on the Department of Education’s goals for the US higher education system. Next week: The Department of Education and its critics pose solutions to the soaring costs of college.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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