Can colleges pass the test?

Standardized exams seek to track campus learning

November 11, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

College students in Maryland and across the country might soon be taking standardized tests to determine how much they've learned on campus - part of a national effort to hold universities accountable for student achievement.

An association representing more than 200 large public universities is expected to vote Sunday to recommend that its member colleges adopt standardized tests and within four years begin to publish the results. A group representing another 400 colleges will take a similar vote this month.

The tests would measure students' critical thinking, reasoning and written communication. They likely would be given to representative samples of freshmen and seniors, allowing schools - and the public- to measure the improvement in scores.

The assessments are part of a broader initiative called the Voluntary Accountability System, which was developed in part to reassure Washington that publicly funded higher education does not need a No Child Left Behind law with uniform exit exams given to art history and engineering majors alike.

"There was concern that they would start trying to do these grade-by-grade assessments, which I think all of us feel would be inappropriate in higher education," said University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, who chaired development of the project with input from more than 80 public college administrators nationally. "So it's time for us to come together as a community and develop a system of accountability."

But other educators have profound misgivings about the notion that any generic tests can capture the learning produced by a college education.

"How do you measure citizenship?" said Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar, who called the initiative "a very unfortunate" development. "How do you measure values? How do you measure inspiring a spirit of lifelong learning?"

The proposed system is a joint effort of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The governing board of the first group is scheduled to take up the initiative at a meeting Sunday morning in New York City.

Kirwan said he expects "most, if not all" of Maryland's public colleges to sign up.

Essentially, the Voluntary System of Accountability is a publishing project. Participating campuses would start by posting on the Internet a wide array of institutional data - such as graduation rates, student demographics and cost calculators - in a common format so students and parents could compare institutions.

Within two years, the schools also would publish the results of standardized surveys that measure student perceptions of their college experience.

The third phase of the project would require all campuses within four years to publish the results of one of three commercially available tests designed to measure student learning.

Officials emphasized that the tests are not envisioned as graduation litmus tests - such as Maryland's High School Assessments - but as one more tool for prospective students and parents to use in making college choices.

"Don't even go there, don't even go there!" Kirwan exclaimed when asked about the prospects for a one-size-fits-all graduation test. "Don't in any way associate this with what goes on in high school."

But at least one of the three standardized instruments endorsed by the initiative, the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP), was designed to measure whether undergraduates are prepared to move into upper-level classes.

"The idea is that students take their general education core curriculum in the first two years, and this is a way to check that they have the foundation skills ... to proceed onto upper-division coursework," said David Chadima of ACT Inc., the Iowa-based group that developed the ACT college entrance exam as well as the CAAP.

The CAAP comes in modules that test reading, writing, math, critical thinking and scientific reasoning. Several hundred two-year and four-year campuses use the test, but Chadima said many employ it as a general measure of student progress rather than as a matriculation exam.

That's how Towson University plans to experiment with the CAAP, as well as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an increasingly popular computer-based test that measures reasoning, problem-solving and writing. It also is endorsed by the Voluntary System of Accountability.

The third test selected as an option for the initiative is the multiple-choice Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress (MAPP) developed by the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the College Board. The MAPP exam purports to measure student progress in critical thinking, writing and mathematics.

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