Every year, students in K-12 are subject to a barrage of standardized tests designed to hold teachers accountable and make sure that students are meeting learning standards. But in college, such assessments are few and far between. The only tests that matter are those created by individual professors, and the only measure of achievement that matters is a student’s GPA. Government accreditors and prospective students need to look at secondary data, like retention rates and average graduate salaries, to indirectly assess the quality of various higher education programs.But a growing number of scholars are concerned that the lack of any kind of standardized testing system in higher education makes it difficult to measure the true quality of education colleges provide. And one such group, called the Measuring Learning Project, is attempting to overcome faculty skepticism about assessments and create consensus guidelines for standardized college testing in a variety of subjects. Inside Higher Education reports:
After more than two years of work, the project has defined the “fundamental concepts and competencies society demands from today’s college graduates” in biology, business, communication, economics, history and sociology. […]One of the project’s goals is for the white papers to be used for the creation of tests, or assessments, that colleges can use in a standardized way. […]Existing, discipline-specific assessments are not high-quality, said Arum. The project’s leaders have been in touch with assessment firms and possible funders about creating the new tests. Arum said the goal is for the assessments to be publicly available tools in three to five years.
And if colleges resist? The MLP argues that they will ultimately “have no other choice … because policymakers and the general public will continue to pressure colleges to demonstrate value, including through some form of standardized assessment of student learning.”We think that projects like this one are promising and worthwhile. At a time when we are spending more money than ever on higher education—and plunging more and more students into debt as a result—it is important to gather as much data as possible on which colleges and fields of study are imparting students with valuable knowledge and skills, and which aren’t. It seems likely, for example, that a number of the postmodern identity-politics social science subfields are not teaching students much if anything that is deserving of a public subsidy.Finally, and perhaps even more importantly, a standardized college testing system might help make the college-to-job pipeline less cronyist and more meritocratic. Too many companies recruit and hire students based on where they went to college rather than how much they learned there. A single standardized assessment, taken by college graduates in each field of study during their senior year, would give a more transparent measure of academic knowledge. As we’ve argued before: “One important way that social inequality is maintained in America is that students at top schools have a leg up in many professional fields no matter how much they learned or didn’t learn. A standardized college testing system just might help address this problem.”