Skill-Level Testing Graduates to College

Universities take a page from standardized exams to grade their work but grapple with how the results are best used.

The Denver Post
June 23, 2008

By Allison Sherry

One hundred Colorado State University freshmen will sit down before school starts this fall and take a test to measure how thoroughly they think, how well they write and how deftly they solve problems.

Administrators hope to get a sense of whether the university is adding value to the students’ lives.

Increasingly, colleges and universities want to see how well they are doing their jobs – either internally or against competitors – by giving students tests to measure basic college- level skills.

Some call the endeavor the “No Child Left Behind” movement for colleges, but so far, individual student performance isn’t studied as much as class achievement.

At the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, for example, engineering professors decided to sprinkle more writing in assignments after an assessment test showed certain majors were lagging in the area.

Though many college administrators agree on the need for some sort of test, academics and policy experts are wildly split on what to do with the results.

Some colleges, like CSU, are pushing for more transparency. They want to be held accountable on student growth and want parents to look at this, rather than the U.S. News and World Report rankings, to gauge whether a college is good.

“People want evidence that their tax dollars and tuition money are being well-used,” said Alan Lamborn, a CSU vice provost. “If every institution is focusing on getting better than it is, we’d have a better education system, and it would be better for the country.”

CSU president Larry Penley wants his school’s efforts to improve teaching but also give parents and students a sense of how well the school stacks up against its peers.

The school has budgeted $65,000 for testing this year. Last year, it gave the Collegiate Learning Assessment to 120 first-year students.

“I think if we make ourselves more transparent, then we increase the faith that the public has in higher education,” Penley said. Other schools, like CU-Colorado Springs, prefer to use the information for mostly private purposes. They say the sample sizes are small and that test results are used for fine-tuning general-education course work.

And in the middle of the burgeoning national college accountability movement are many professors who say the true value of a higher education can never be measured with a single test – especially one taken by students who have no stake in the outcome.

At CSU, freshmen who agree to take the test get to move into dorms a day early. At CU-Colorado Springs, they get a $10 voucher to the school cafeteria.

“As faculty members, we’re always interested in knowing that our students are achieving as much as they possibly can,” said R.L. Widmann, a Shakespeare professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and chairwoman of CU’s faculty council. “But many faculty will be perturbed at the concept of a standardized test that could be used to blame them for inadequate teaching. As if that’s the sole factor when a student doesn’t succeed.”

Some also worry that resources – dollars, energy, time – won’t be on tap if a problem is diagnosed.

“I think there’s value in this. We should be honest about it and careful about it,” said Bill Timpson, an education professor at CSU. “We should have resources available when we identify problems.”

Higher-education policy experts and educational consultants, however, say the blossoming cost of tuition has made parents increasingly anxious about the true value of college.

“It’s rare if a day goes by that a parent doesn’t ask me if a certain school is worth it,” said Steve Goodman, a Washington D.C.-based consultant who works with parents and students to help them get into college. “That’s what they’re focused on. You wouldn’t pay for a vacation if it didn’t have value to you. You wouldn’t buy a car if it didn’t have value to you.”

Cassy Clayman will head to CU-Boulder this fall. She is 18 and is accustomed to assessment tests – she’s been taking them her whole life.

In college, though, she expects to learn without having to prove to the university that she’s learning. Testing, she said, is something she’s looking forward to getting away from.

“This isn’t so much that they’re (colleges) doing a poor job,” said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “But that this knowledge-based economy simply requires that we do a lot better than we have in the past. A lot of countries are moving past us.”

At CU-Colorado Springs, between 600 and 800 juniors are tested every few years on writing and critical thinking.

Because of test results that showed nursing students needed more international awareness and arts-and-sciences students needed more reasoning skills, professors have made adjustments.

“I can’t tell you how much this is influencing the quality of the institution,” said Chancellor Pamela Shockley-Zalabak.

The tests given on this campus, however, aren’t public. David Moon, a vice chancellor at the school, said the results were posted on the school’s website but not in an easy or understandable way.

College consultant Goodman compared that to reviewing his own book.

“I’d be delighted to review my own book,” he said, “but if I reviewed my own book we know what it would say.”

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