Flunk this test

November 19, 2007

The nation's colleges and universities may need better ways to show that they are doing a good job of educating students, but giving standardized tests to undergraduates shouldn't be one of them.

That's the least plausible part of an otherwise sensible plan to make more information about higher-education institutions available to students, parents and the public. Many critical elements of the college experience simply can't be captured by uniform tests - and efforts to homogenize that experience should be discouraged.

Two groups representing about 600 schools of higher education, including 200 large public universities such as the University System of Maryland, are considering the Voluntary Accountability System to check how well they are helping students succeed. They would offer a more consistent presentation of basic data such as overall costs, available financial aid, and graduation and retention rates. In addition, published surveys would reveal students' thoughts about the quality of the learning environment and their overall campus experience.

Over the next four years, random samples of freshmen and seniors would be tested to determine how well their critical thinking and other skills had developed; testing experts are confident that they can devise ways of measuring such progress. But surely that's better left to graduate school admission exams. And even if the testing proposal is only a pilot project, as its backers claim - why even go down that road?

The strength of American higher education is its diversity, and college is both a collective and an individual experience. Measuring various aspects of that experience, such as citizenship or the joy of learning, would be extremely difficult, and the results highly suspect. What a shame it would be to devalue individual discovery for the sake of a collective score.

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