From time to time, Via Meadia has pointed to a long-standing problem in higher education: finding an objective measure of how much a student has learned. College grades and course credits are fungible, relative measures that don’t necessarily tell us anything about what’s inside a student’s head.
So we’re pleased to see a New York Times op-ed making the case for a standardized test for college graduates:
The lack of meaningful academic standards in higher education drags down the entire system. Grade inflation, even (or especially) at the most elite institutions, is rampant. A landmark book published last year, “Academically Adrift,” found that many students at traditional colleges showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing, and spent their time socializing, working or wasting time instead of studying. (And that’s not even considering the problem of low graduation rates.)
The rapid migration of higher education online exacerbates these problems. The notion of recording academic progress by counting the number of hours students spend sitting in a classroom is nonsensical when there is no actual classroom. . . .
But the most promising solution would be to replace the anachronistic credit hour with common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do. There are many routes to doing this. In the arts and sciences, scholarly associations could define and update what it means to be proficient in a field. So could professional organizations and employers in vocational and technical fields.
A system of standardized tests as a requirement for graduation could have a number of advantages. It would make it easier to crack down on “diploma mills” and grade inflation, and the data thus acquired could be used to calibrate loans and financial aid.
Standardized tests could be good for students as well, giving kids from less well-known schools a chance to be judged by what’s in their heads rather than the brand name on their diploma. Employers, too, can benefit from real knowledge about what prospective hires do and don’t know, by contrast to the ambiguous provenance of a GPA.
Most importantly, a test would allow parents, legislators, and other interested parties to assess how well a school is doing. As the Times notes, colleges have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo in which it is nearly impossible to hold schools accountable for the education they provide. This needs to change.