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Higher Ed Shake Up
Toward a College Testing System

The New America Foundation is out with a new white paper, written by Fredrik DeBoer of Purdue University, on the prospects for a standardized or semi-standardized system of testing for college students. From the introduction:

Unlike K-12 schools, which have long been subject to legal and infrastructural pressures that result in standardization and homogeneity, universities have traditionally been individual, self-directed institutions. Private universities, in particular, have often functioned as their own worlds, operating under idiosyncratic rules and subject to few external authorities. This lack of standardization among universities both makes it more difficult to assess college learning and harder to coordinate and standardize such assessments.

The paper, while attentive to concerns about unreliability and unintended consequences, is cautiously optimistic about the impact such an assessment system would have on higher education quality. And it suggests that the results could help the federal government control tuition increases by steering subsidies away from low-performing schools.

There’s one other potential benefit of a carefully-constructed college assessment system that DeBoer doesn’t mention: It might help level the playing field by allowing students from less prestigious schools prove that they’re as capable as their Ivy League counterparts. As we’ve argued before, elite colleges and high-powered employers are in a symbiotic relationship of convenience that is deeply unfair to students who either didn’t want to go to a prestigious university or who couldn’t impress an admissions committee when they were 17 years old.

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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  • truthsojourner

    Brilliant. Now we can have university professors teach to the test. That might be a good idea if it ended up removing liberal bias from the classroom. On the other hand, it is a very bad idea for the rest of us who try to instill critical thinking in our students so they can think for themselves and discard the liberal BS they encounter everyday in the other guy’s class.

    • Fat_Man

      It is much better to give them the freedom to explore social justice issues without worrying about whether the students learn anything. /sarc

      • Kevin

        Assuming the tests won’t be biased in this direction. Looking at th direction he College Board/SAT has been moving I’m not confident college test writing won’t be captured by ideologues.

        • Fat_Man

          Tests should be very narrowly limited e.g. there should be tests on General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry. Not just one test on Chemistry or worse Science. Tests should certify mastery of narrow subjects. Of course literature tests will be SJW B$, but employers won’t care about that. And taking literature courses as a prerequisite for professional licensing is out of the question.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Treat the tests as ‘merit badges’, and the employers will be able to customize their needs to the data available. The SJW crap will be found wanting quite quickly…

          • Fat_Man


          • f1b0nacc1

            WFM? Please clarify?

          • Fat_Man

            WFM = Works For Me.

          • f1b0nacc1

            thanks for the clarification!

  • Ofer Imanuel

    Perhaps provide a bar exam for each subject? If you do that, why pay for accredited university at all?

    • Fat_Man

      What you would have is a recapitulation of the history of European Universities. In the beginning, they were just lecture halls and students hired the professors to tech subjects like law, medicine, and theology. Examinations came later.

  • Fat_Man

    What would be really neat, is they let students learn the subject matter the way they want to or can, i.e. conventional class room, MOOCs, public library, you tube, on the job, etc., and let them take the exam and prove they know the stuff. Why force kids to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit in classrooms and listen to boring lectures? and, take lots of courses on stuff they do not care about, or want to know.

    Another thing that should be done is to replace classroom time, degree requirements for occupational licensing, with appropriate tests. If a man can pass the bar exam, and show that he is not a felon, why not admit him to the practice of law. Why do accountants have to have five years of school, and then pass a rigorous set of exams. Shouldn’t the exams alone be enough?

    • Fat_Man

      I like to answer my own questions.

      One profession that operates by running its own exams, and is not torqued out about degrees is actuaries.

      To be an associate of the Society of Actuaries ( is largely a question of passing a very rigorous set of exams, to become a Fellow of the SoA requires more and harder exams.

      Fellows make good six figure salaries. I once put one on the witness stand. he told the judge that a Fellow was the equivalent of a Doctoral degree.

      This should be our model.

  • John Bragg

    What happens when there are the usual racial disparities in test scores? The BA has been somehow exempt from “strict scrutiny” on racial grounds, but tests are not.

    • Fat_Man

      Fisher v. University of Texas, (2013) Law school’s Affirmative Action program subject to strict scrutiny. I think you are referring to Griggs vs. Duke Power (1971). In that case, a high school diploma was an alternative to the IQ test. Both the test and the diploma requirements were as discriminatory:

      “The touchstone is business necessity. If an employment practice which operates to exclude Negroes cannot be shown to be related to job performance, the practice is prohibited. On the record before us, neither the high school completion requirement nor the general intelligence test is shown to bear a demonstrable relationship to successful performance of the jobs for which it was used.”

      I am sure that a similar requirement for a BA for a job where it is not a bona fide occupational requirement would also be objectionable.

      • John Bragg

        Has a BA ever been knocked down as discriminatory? Old federal PACE exam, civil service tests, private sector testing have all been knocked down over past 40 years. BA/BS has had a de facto exemption.
        “Bona fide occupational requirement” my foot–there are plenty of occupations that now require a BA as entry credential that didn’t in 1970. Jobs didn’t get harder, it just became effectively impossible to test applicants without courting a discrimination suit.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Once Duke v Griggs was in place, the BA was simply used as a proxy, hence since it was never treated as a specific requirement it couldn’t be treated as discriminatory

        • Fat_Man

          “BA/BS has had a de facto exemption.”

          That may be, but it is very clearly not what Griggs held.

  • Larry J

    I’d like to see a comprehensive exam given before admission and just before graduation. The first exam would help students identify weak areas so they can better focus their course load. The second exam would identify how much the students improved – if at all – while in college. It would be a basis for comparison with graduates from other colleges, which is why I doubt many colleges would want to participate in the testing. Perhaps this comprehensive exam should be given outside of the colleges similar to the SAT and ACT.

  • jeburke

    Oh please, standardized tests in high school and lower grades more or less work (setting aside incessant complaints about them) because the curricula are more or less standardized. What test can take into account scores of majors and minors and hundreds of electives across 1000 institutions? And while a test can measure knowledge of this or that, no test can measure acquired habits of learning. Employers,especially big employers, can give job applicants any test they want. Finally, I doubt there are many employers who hire Ivy grads because of their BA alone.

    • Fat_Man

      Employers want Ivy League grads because they fall under the heading of who you know, not what you know.

  • Greg Olsen

    Assessing field knowledge is standard in AACSB accredited business programs. The accreditor requires schools assess the students, hence the prevalence of the Major Field Test in business as an exit exam. I will be required to sit for a multiple hour exam on field knowledge in the program I am in now in international relations. Field knowledge is assessed for U.S. PhD students in exams as well prior to proceeding to the dissertation. There is fundamentally nothing wrong with bringing graduate school style knowledge assessment to undergraduate majors.

  • charlesrwilliams

    Why not just abolish the BA and do paper tests of general knowledge, math and language skills and intelligence.

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