Standardized tests may come to college

Traditionally, students have equated the beginning of college with the end of one’s standardized testing career. However, soon these two may no longer be mutually exclusive.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, under the direction of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, has been discussing the advantages to be gained from administering a standardized test designed specifically for college students.

According to a February 13 article in The New York Times, the issue was raised out of a perceived need for more accountability in colleges and universities. Commission members felt that it would be advantageous to create one standard test to be administered to every college student in the nation.
The exam would test students’ writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Its results would be used to assess the total amount of learning that is occurring in colleges, but also which schools contain the students who are learning the most — and least.

But government standards are far from ideal in the minds of Carnegie Mellon students.

“I can’t think of any reason that a student would want or need to take that kind of test,” said sophomore Julia Brown, a professional writing major. “How do you test a humanities major versus a computer science major? There’s no way to really standardize that.”

“Each college is supposed to do things differently,” said Rebecca Reesman, a first-year in physics and statistics. “When you [take standardized tests] in high school, it’s only to see where you fit into that picture.”

William Elliott, Carnegie Mellon’s vice president for enrollment, agreed. He believes there are several ways to measure students’ progress other than administering a test.

“What about a review of course descriptions?” he asked. “Review grade patterns, review writing samples of submitted coursework, GRE/LAST/MCAT results ... the list goes on.”

What many don’t know, however, is that this is not the first attempt at standardized testing in higher education. Several years ago, the University of Texas instituted standardized testing as a means of assessing students’ performance across nine campuses. To do this, they developed a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment to administer to all University of Texas students.

In October 2005, when the Commission on the Future of Higher Education first met under the direction of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and chairman of the commission Charles Miller, that test served as a model during discussion of the national test, according to a January 6 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Also prominent in the commission’s discussion was the effect of standardized tests on colleges’ affordability. Officials believe that students’ families, who shoulder most of the financial burden of sending their children to college, deserve a more quantitative way to assess the progress of their children compared to students overall, and in turn, assess the quality of the institution to which they are making out their checks.

The test results would also be a way for prospective students and their families to decide if a particular institution is worth the financial investment.

The government would also like to see the progress of the colleges to which it is sending student aid. However, its interest in standardized testing is more complicated.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the commission is interested in making a school’s eligibility for federal funding contingent on standardized testing scores as an incentive for schools to submit to government regulation.

Public universities are most at risk for the mandate because they are funded by state taxes. However, private colleges are also at risk. The accreditation they currently need from the federal government to operate requires them to meet certain standards in order to receive federal grants and financial aid, according to The New York Times.

Elliott does not support this type of regulation. “Outcomes should be the key objective, not cost,” he stated.

Another pull is the federal accreditation a school would receive once it agreed to administer the exam. The commission’s theory is that this kind of accreditation would be attractive to the school’s prospective students and create a more competitive applicant pool.

Elliott noted that, though Carnegie Mellon is a competitive university that would rank highly in this respect, the accreditation would not be an incentive for the University to administer the test.

The commission claimed as an advantage that the test would lend more merit to nontraditional courses, such as those taken online. However, critics argued that it would discount other methods of learning, such as hands-on or firsthand experience in a field.

It would also assume that all students had used the same method of learning, in essence testing a national curriculum.

“The notion of a single exam implies there are national standards, and that implies a national curriculum. Then we are on the way to a centralized Prussian education system,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, to The New York Times.

The test would also highlight the reasons behind racial gaps, bad literacy test results, and universities’ continuing failure to graduate enough math and science students to meet the domestic demand for high-tech workers.

The New York Times reported that a 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy indicated that less than one-third of surveyed college graduates demonstrated the ability to read complex texts in English and make insightful inferences.

“Professors would start teaching for the test instead of what they thought was important,” Brown said. “The government would ultimately be dictating what we need to learn in college. It’s insulting to the institutions.”

“Colleges have reputations anyway. Why do we need another way to measure that?” asked Karen Doersch, a first-year cognitive science major. “A private institution should be independent from the government.”

The University’s administration agrees. When asked what local reactions might be like if the tests were to be administered, Elliott answered: “Not pleased.”