Higher education -- higher accountability
Ohanian Comment: AGHHHHHHHHHHH! Why the hell should our universities all have the same "standards?" Maybe something's missing here, but I don't 'get' Leon Botstein's point about accountability. For starters, I'd like to see that word banished from the discussion of school quality. Too much counting going on in accountability. And they always count the wrong things.
FCAT-like testing undermines purpose
If measures like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test are good for the public elementary and secondary schools -- a presumption supported by current Republican leaders -- then, by their reasoning, similar measures would be good for colleges and universities.
Yet as critics correctly say of such a plan, it confuses the different missions of, for example, two-year colleges and research universities. It also undermines the broader purpose of expanding students' knowledge beyond their majors or specialties and stimulating research and democratic debate.
Still, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings advocates federal standardized testing of college students. She unequivocally supported the concept when she told a group of national editorial writers in September that the principles of the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- whose linchpin is standardized testing -- should be applied to public colleges and universities.
By November, the secretary was backing away from such a one-size-fits-all approach for two reasons. First, voters gave Democrats control of the U.S. House and Senate, reducing chances that NCLB principles, including testing, could be built into the reauthorization of the higher-education bill. And even more vexing to the secretary's plan, the panel that Spellings appointed to study higher education -- which was believed to have been the base from which to launch her campaign -- failed to agree not only on testing but also on how to hold public colleges and universities accountable.
The Commission on the Future of Higher Education vaguely recommended some form of accountability, leaving definitions to someone else. Meanwhile, the educational-testing companies are already developing measures and conservative think tanks are building the case for college-student testing.
For good reason, that troubles Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose 1,100-member institution is working independently of government to strengthen undergraduate education -- including developing voluntary student-assessment strategies. The commission's report "punted completely" on defining educational concepts, she said at a recent Phoenix seminar sponsored by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. In calling for standardized measures without defining them, commissioners left the vision of what higher education should be to the testing companies.
This sad state of affairs, says testing opponent Leon Botstein, should be a warning sign for colleges and universities to improve themselves. The president of Bard College and longtime advocate of reforms in higher education also criticized the commission's inability to define accountability and bluntly charged it was a vehicle to give politicians control of higher education.
The commission might better have looked to university reforms being instituted in Europe. Clifford Adelman, a former higher-education researcher for the U.S. Education Department, who now works for Higher Education Policy, reports that since 1999, four thousand universities in Europe have been working together to set the same rules on degrees, credits, transfers, etc., making it easier for students to move from one institution to another, even from nation to nation. And they plan to give accreditation to students through an electronic "Europass," which would provide information to other universities or to potential employers. The pass would not merely be a transcript but a record of accomplishments, including certification exams, final projects and studies abroad. It would accurately measure the student directly and the institutions indirectly.
Applying standardized testing to colleges is not only simplistic, but also would dramatically alter the role of higher education, reducing universities to employment centers and taking away historic contributions such as being centers for democratic and cultural debate or testing places for new ideas. That would serve neither the nation nor, particularly, its students.
Daytona Beach News-Journal
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