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Editor's Note

Is Standardized Testing on the Horizon?

University Business, Apr 2006

Remember the old joke that one of the most frightening things you can hear is the phrase, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help"? I mention that by way of reporting a federal push for greater accountability in higher education-sort of a "No College Left Behind" effort. The Department of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education says it's time to consider a standardized national exit exam to measure the effectiveness of higher education. As with the K-12 program, continued federal funding would hinge on good results. Schools that fail to perform would be cut out of aid programs such as Pell Grants and Stafford loans.

Not surprisingly, the plan has been met with a somewhat less than enthusiastic response from higher education.

Sure, accountability is a good thing. With education costs rising, everyone is concerned with ensuring a solid return on their investment. Richard Hersh, former president of Trinity College (Conn.), addressed this subject in a talk I had with him last year for the release of his book Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk. "Just because the marketplace is prepared to give the consumer what he or she wants doesn't necessarily mean that we are doing a good job of what higher education should be," Hersh said. "I'm not sure we can't do both. Why can't we require that a bachelor's degree have a liberal education as a necessary but sufficient condition for it? Why can't we guarantee that, whenever and wherever a person goes to school, there are some criteria and standards by which we can judge whether what is being offered is of high quality, so we can make some judgments as to what the value of a degree means?"

But is a standardized test the best way to achieve that? Commission Chairman Charles Miller has said the test should measure college students' critical thinking, problem solving and written communication skills, but on what level? After satisfying their core curriculum requirements early on, college students begin exploring and learning in different ways. "The beauty of the American system of higher education is that there is no uniform approach," notes Joseph Aoun, dean of the University of Southern California College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. "This remarkable freedom empowers schools to be unusually innovative and socially responsive, as well as allow for greater competition between universities and public and private colleges." Would a music major then be expected to perform at the same level as, say, an engineering major? How would a two-year college stack up against a four-year college?

Let's not overlook the fact that colleges and universities already have multiple tools for assessment in place. They answer to regional and national accrediting agencies that evaluate faculty scholarship and student learning outcomes, as well as to agencies that evaluate admissions data and the quality of teaching, learning, and leadership. And, ultimately, they answer to the market: The quality of a school's graduates is certainly one of the deciding factors for prospective students. Would an exit exam make much difference?

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education expects to deliver its recommendations by August 1, but the debate has begun. Where do you stand? Tell us by sending an e-mail to the address below, with the subject line "Accountability," and we'll publish your views. Let's encourage some serious discussion on an issue that could have far-reaching consequences for all of higher education.

Write to Tim Goral at

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