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Higher Ed Shake Up
Proving College Is Worth It

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.”

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  • WigWag

    Standardized testing at the college level will be as big a failure as standardized testing in grade school. Testing companies will become rich hawking invalid and unreliable examinations and employers will be indifferent to the results that students achieve on those tests because they will understand perfectly well that performance on the tests will be completely irrelevant to job performance.

    Higher education in the United States needs to be completely rethought. Implementing a new standardized testing program is the opposite of what needs to be done.

    • johngbarker

      That may be true WigWag, but it will be amusing to watch the panic spread when the academy is confronted with any demand for accountability.

      • WigWag

        You definitely have a point!

  • Boritz

    “the lack of any kind of standardized testing system in higher education makes it difficult to measure the true quality of education colleges provide.”

    Will the test, when it is developed, be heavy on race, class and gender?

  • rheddles

    Yes, our problem is that our mandarins don’t think as the test tells them to.

  • Greg Olsen

    Standardized testing is appropriate in certain fields like business, STEM, clinical psychology. I had to take the Major Field Test to graduate with my MBA from University of Nebraska. The difficulty is applying the principle to fields without a standardized curriculum set by professional society. How do you apply it to a liberal art, especially with no consensus on canon, theory, or body of skills. Business at least is wedded to neoliberal economics–the only Marxists are in the Economics department–standard methods of strategic analysis, mathematical finance, etc.–things that can be tested with objective answers. The same is true for Physics, Math, Engineering, Chemistry, Geology, etc.

    Testing applied to History, English, Political Science (which is not even remotely a science based on the quality of quantitative research published), would be nearly meaningless. There is no signaling value to the exam other than measuring ideological temperament. There is nothing objective in any of those fields to test.

    • Fat_Man

      The test in those fields is whether they can duckspeak goodthink from bellyfeel.

  • Anthony

    Observation: all reports and analyses are selective and inferential to some inescapable degree – a hidden assumption being Higher Education’s central purpose is “job” acquisition and testing accountability may make job acquisition more meritorious. Good luck with that, as any process of selection (testing) allows the cultural and political and class interests of the selector to operate as a censor – in our system, one calls that what? Nevertheless, people tend to perceive issues in accordance with the position they occupy in the social structure so a standardized system may appear reasonable to some ceteris paribus.

    • GS

      cognitive selection is neither class- nor culture- specific.

      • Anthony

        Cognitive selection is a criteria but not singly determinative in America (despite sentiments of some).

        • GS

          What is a SAT if not an IQ test [of rather indifferent quality] masquerading as something else?

          • Anthony

            Clearly and frankly (as your position on the above cited measures are known), I am not arguing those measures nor their relative validity but that I disagree with your implication which locates the ground of merit clearly and narrowly in intellectual aptitude – for me a narrowness of vision generally. Nevertheless, GS, your characterization is completely understood. And for some Domains have indicative relevance.

          • GS

            “Merit” is not generalized but is field-specific. What constitutes “merit” for, say, graduate school admission and success [decent preparation in the field plus being as a minimum “bright” or, better, “gifted”] has very little in common with what constitutes “merit” for admission to, and success in, the SEALs training. There one needs being similarly above average in one’s physical parameters [such as strength and endurance], having dogged persistence [this part they have in common with graduate schools], and being cognitively “normal” or better.
            As far as college education is concerned, the muscle needed there is the “brain muscle”, hence the stress on cognition.

          • Anthony

            All that is a given and now you’re engaging in semantics. The Post is about college (American) value and ascribing worth.

          • GS

            I have received my education both abroad and in the United States. Hence I am in an ideal position to compare. My conclusion is as follows: American so-called “liberal education” is worthless, and frequently is worse than that, as it could have a negative value. American specialized/vocational education is highly valuable.

          • Anthony

            Their is no (from my end) comparative exchange going on; I reference American colleges only as framework of Post’s thrust. Semiotics travel across Oceans and we can only hope so does “true education”, thanks.

          • Anthony

            You know I started to change to criterion after I reread comment but said what the heck GS knows the point and this is both informal and early morning – thanks just the same for addendum to your original comment (and yes, preciseness has its place professionally).

  • Blackbeard

    The problem with testing, and even more so with using test results to evaluate employment candidates, is that the test results tend to have a disparate impact on protected groups. That’s why firms stopped giving IQ type tests to prospective employees years ago and instead began to rely on graduation from college, and particularly graduation from a top tier college, as a proxy for intelligence, diligence, etc. Of course, the way things are going now the assumption that success in college, except perhaps in STEM fields, is a proxy for anything is looking rather weak.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Sooner or later, we will see private-sector entrepreneurs developing both measurements and a marketing plan to sell the results of those measurements to employers in the hiring process. We didn’t have Paypal—–until we did. We didn’t have Uber—–until we did. SOMEONE is going to find the way to connect employers and potential (measured) employees—-bypassing the current emphasis on high school diplomas and college degrees. It’s a matter of time, and, of course, some fields will be more suitable than others for re-thinking the employee selection process..

  • Kevin

    Given that “disabled” students (ie anyone who whines) get extra time and resources while taking a test, high stakes tests would be pretty useless. And what will happen when minority graduates fail them at a higher rate?

    • f1b0nacc1

      While I agree with you entirely I am more concerned with regulatory capture, in this case the cooption of the test designers by the organizations that they are theoretically providing a metric for evaluating.

  • Josephbleau

    “If we can’t have it, burn it down.” Thus, if some group can’t pass the test, the test will be eliminated.

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