Commission Mulls Standardized Testing in Colleges

The Bush administration has appointed a commission that is considering standardized testing for college students. The testing would be meant to measure the quality of higher education in the United States.

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Higher education in the United States is sometimes described as the envy of the world. But lawmakers in Washington are concerned about the quality of education that college students actually get, even at elite institutions. Now, the Bush administration has appointed a commission that's considering standardized testing. It's to gauge college students' skills, and find out if institutions are doing as good a job as they say they are.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

From the get-go, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings put higher education on notice. At her Senate confirmation hearings a year ago, Spellings said in K through 12 Education, the federal government provides eight to nine percent of the funding.

Secretary MARGARET SPELLINGS (Secretary of Education): But in higher education, we provide, you know, nearly a third. So, we are a major investor in higher education in this country.

SANCHEZ: For that reason alone, Spellings said, colleges and universities must be held accountable. Parents should know how long it'll take for the child to graduate, how much it'll cost, and the chances their son or daughter will drop out.

Secretary SPELLINGS: Currently, we require lots of data from higher ed institutions. But I think, I'm not fully confident that we really have much truth in advertising about what the state of the world is, with respect to getting out of college.

SANCHEZ: Right now, Spellings said everybody's in the dark, and poor graduation and retention rates are only the tip of a much bigger problem. So, Spellings appointed a Commission on the Future of Higher Education. It's headed by a businessman from Houston, and a long time advocate of state standardized tests for colleges, Charles Miller. The commission's charge: to exam issues of accountability, costs, and quality.

It's conclusion, thus far, the need for a national database that would include measures of learning pegged to a set of skills, like writing, critical thinking, and problem solving. In short, standardized testing at every institution that receives federal funding.

David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, says this is a bad idea. The very notion of a national high stakes, one-size-fits-all exam to rate and rank colleges based on students' test scores is wrong.

Mr. DAVID WARREN (President, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities): You can't have outcomes like this unless you have national standards. And you can't have national standards unless you have a national curriculum. And that's the direction, it seems to me, that the commission is going.

SANCHEZ: Warren says colleges must reject a cookie-cutter approach to accountability.

Mr. WARREN: Something about measuring 3,706 institutions, and 6,000 proprietary institutions with the same measurement instrument just trivializes the outcome.

SANCHEZ: Ultimately, says Warren, the market will prove to be a better indicator of how colleges and universities are doing.

Mr. WARREN: The market is telling us that what we're doing, we're doing pretty well. I do not hear the consumer telling us that they don't have data suitable to either get in to our institutions, or move through it.

SANCHEZ: Even if that's true, though, the data available are saying there are problems. Too many college graduates aren't ready for the world of work. A literacy study by the Pew Charitable Trust, released last month, for example, shows that over 50 percent of students at four-year institutions cannot understand a newspaper story or editorial, and struggle with basic math, like figuring out a 15 percent tip. That's what's driving push for standardized tests for colleges.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, meanwhile, is split on the issue. It has another seven months before it makes its final recommendations.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News, Washington.

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