Colleges Weigh Common Assessments
Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 02:04
Amid a growing movement for colleges to undergo national standardized assessments, Georgetown officials have said such efforts are misleading and narrow in scope.
In the past five years, a number of measures designed to gauge the quality of a college education through standardized test scores and other indicators have been developed. The largest of these, the Voluntary System of Accountability, is a project of 321 public four-year universities that compiles basic information about the participating schools into an online database called the “College Portrait.”
According to David Paris, the executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, an organization that encourages higher education institutions to gather and publicize evidence of student learning, much of the enthusiasm for a standardized assessment of colleges stems from concerns about rising tuition costs amid a weak economy.
“People are worried about the value of a degree, especially given the increasing cost,” he said. “The pressure, such as it is, has been coming from state governments, rather than students or the federal government.”
But administrators at Georgetown, including Associate Provost Randy Bass, say that standardized assessments are often too general and fail to take into consideration goals of a particular course or department.
“There is a great danger unless the assessments are done in a collaborative and organic manner,” Bass wrote in an email. “The danger is when a common assessment or standardized test is applied and isn’t carefully aligned with [a] program’s goals. Then you end up judging faculty on an assessment that is unrelated to the goals of the course.”
In 2008, Georgetown joined 92 other schools in signing a statement issued by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education that argued against relying on simple, quantitative measures of program effectiveness.
Paris acknowledged this perspective.
“The concerns are that it will lead to comparisons of institutions that are not fair, that reflect the incoming skills of students rather than their growth, and that such an assessment does not help a school improve,” he explained.
However, Paris stressed that standardized assessments, if analyzed in context, can help paint a full picture of the value of an institution’s education, especially to prospective students.
“A standardized test is one indicator of whether students have reached a certain level in skill or knowledge,” he said. “Such tests should be used in combination with other measures, especially those that look at actual student work. … Transparency is important, especially for current and prospective students.”
Georgetown has considered, and ultimately rejected, using a standardized tool called the Collegiate Learning Assessment. The CLA was the basis for a book, “Academically Adrift,” which asserted that college students learn nothing in their first two years of college.
According to Bass, other institutions that had used the test did not find it to be helpful.
“Using tests like the CLA is certainly one instrument and strategy,” he wrote. “But an institution that is among their certified leaders would certainly have to have many assessment measures in place and they need not all be certified.”
Bass added that while the university has avoided using standardized tests, he would support the increased use of assessments which measure the comparative value of courses within one institution.
“We could do a better job of knowing these things. It would serve a lot of our objectives,” Bass wrote.