AUSTIN — Eight years ago, leaders of the University of Texas set out to measure something few in higher education had thought to question — how much their students learn before graduation.
An unsettling answer emerged: arguably, not very much.
That conclusion is based on results from a 90-minute essay test given to freshmen and seniors that aims to gauge gains in critical thinking and communication skills.
The Texas flagship and a few hundred other public universities have joined a growing accountability movement in higher education, embracing this test and others like it that attempt, for the first time, to quantify collegiate learning on a large scale.
But the results have triggered a wave of rancor. Some college leaders are outraged that four years of learning might now be reduced to a single score. Lackluster results have seeded fresh doubts about the country’s vaunted system of higher education.
Yup - they're now going to try and use value-added at colleges too:
The Collegiate Learning Assessment, launched in 2000, has brought rare scrutiny to higher education. Until now, colleges have been largely exempt from the accountability movement sweeping through public elementary and secondary schools yielding the No Child Left Behind law and other initiatives.
In a landmark study published last year, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa used the test to measure collegiate learning in the nation. Using data drawn from a sampling of public and private colleges, they shook the academic world with a finding that 36 percent of students made no significant learning gains from freshman to senior year.
“I think it’s extremely troubling,” said Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary and a longtime advocate of accountability in education. “And God bless Richard Arum for taking this on.”
Some colleges are pushing back on this, however - especially because the test itself is a problem:
Two groups representing more than 500 public colleges have pledged to give the CLA or one of its rival tests — the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency or Proficiency Profile — and to publish results by the end of this year. So far, 144 schools have posted test results, including Frostburg State University in western Maryland. Many schools have not participated in the testing, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland.
Teresa Sullivan, president of U-Va., said the University of Michigan gave the CLA when she was provost there. Freshmen scored so high, she said, there was no way for seniors to score higher. She believes U-Va. students would hit the same ceiling.
“If there is no way to improve, why would you invest your money in this?” she said.
And of course all bad things either start in Texas or Chicago - this one started in Texas:
The University of Texas, one of the nation’s top research universities, was among the first to give the CLA and is using the results to improve instruction. Testing began in 2004 in Austin, under a state mandate.
Last year, UT freshmen scored an average 1261 on the assessment, which is graded on a scale similar to that of the SAT. Seniors averaged 1303. Both groups scored very well, but seniors fared little better than freshmen, according to score reports The Washington Post obtained through a public records request.
“The seniors have spent four years there, and the scores have not gone up that much,” said Arum, a New York University sociologist and co-author of the 2011 book “Academically Adrift.” He reviewed UT’s results at the request of The Post. The school was not among the 24 unnamed colleges in Arum’s study.
With about 51,000 students and nearly 3,000 faculty, the University of Texas is a veritable learning factory. Critics of the CLA, and there are many in Austin, say it is absurd to judge an organization of this scale on the strength of one score. They note that the CLA is relatively brief and administered to a couple hundred freshmen and seniors who have no stake in the results.
That last part is really important - students tend to not do so well on tests that they have no stake in.
Starting next September in New York, students will be taking city and state tests in every grade in every subject in order to evaluate teachers.
Bloomberg has said the city tests will not count for students - only for teachers.
Since students will be taking so many tests every year, many of which they will have no stake in, you can bet the scores are going to be lackluster.
We're already starting to see that with all the Acuity exams we have to give.
Wait until students are taking 20 high stakes exams a year on top of the Acuity tests!
But unlike college, where individual professors are not going to be graded and fired based on scores, teachers in K-12 will have their evaluations published in the newspapers and will be fired if they come up "ineffective" two years running based on test scores.
The "accountability movement" is making a mess of education these days, and given just how absurd this stuff is on the face of it, I have to believe it is a conscious effort on their part to do so.
Nobody in their right mind should believe you can boil a university degree down to a 90 minute standardized test.
And yet, they say they do.
Again, nobody in their right mind should believe that adding 20 high stakes standardized tests a year to every kid's program and using those scores to evaluate and fire teachers is a fine way to improve education.
And yet, this is exactly what President Obama and Governor Cuomo have promoted through their policies.
It's going to be a dark five to ten years until the country comes to its sense once again - if the country comes to its sense, and decides that education comes down to more than what can be tested in some reductionist way.
If I were a college professor working at a state institution, I would start looking over my shoulder for the VAMsters to call for value-added measurements of individual professors.
I would only hope if that comes to pass that many of the education reformers who work at the universities and shout up VAM to the high heavens have their own value-added voodoo used on them too.