College accountability and social science
April 23, 2012 1 Comment
David Brooks takes our universities to task for not doing a good enough job educating our students and especially for not having any accountability mechanisms like the standardized K-12 testing. The column is based largely on Academically Adrift, which I’ve mentioned several times here.
Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college…
It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.
There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.
In 2006, the Spellings commission, led by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, recommended a serious accountability regime. Specifically, the commission recommended using a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment to provide accountability data. Colleges and grad schools use standardized achievement tests to measure students on the way in; why shouldn’t they use them to measure students on the way out?
Here’s the thing, K-12 standardized tests basically focus on reading and math. That’s it. We have fairly similar expectations about what all High School graduates should know. I don’t think we can say the same about college graduates. So long as we except that physics, computer science, accounting, business management, biomedical engineering, art history, and English literature, etc., are all appropriate college majors you show me a test that you honestly think can evaluate fairly, students across all these majors.
Check out the sample from the CLA.
That’s going to be a tough questions if your focus has been physics or chemistry or many other seriously hard majors where you obviously learn a lot of stuff during college. The truth is, the CLA was created by social scientists and it has a huge bias towards measuring the things that social sciences value. Now, heck, I’m a social scientist and I honestly think the ability to do a good job on the sample question is a valuable skill for any working adult in our society, but I don’t kid myself that answering questions like this means we are actually do a better job educating our students than faculty in disciplines that are very different from my own.
Not surprisingly, Brooks all too easily glides right over these difficulties in order to provide his platitudes about accountability. I would be quite open to the idea of some sort of assessment to see how good a job we are doing educating our students. But don’t kid yourself that this would be a simple and straightforward task. As they say, the devil is in the details, and this strikes me as quite devilish.