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Before They Graduate

Standardized Exit Testing Can Help Boost Your Institution's Reputation.
University Business, Jul 2005

Nothing can be a better indicator of your institution's value than its ability to educate. And what better way to measure it than seeing a comparison of your students' abilities to those of other IHEs using a standardized exam?

Already a number of institutions across the country have been testing outgoing college seniors, according to Bill Wynne, business manager for higher education outcomes assessment for Educational Testing Service (ETS). This isn't the sort of thing elite institutions need to do; the reputations of M.I.T. (Mass.) and Yale (Conn.) precede them. But other schools could benefit from the competitive marketing boost of demonstrating they score best in their regions or categories.

Several states have already made a point of requiring that public institutions prove that they are doing their job, according to the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education. "Just among schools themselves, with no legislation or forethought" they have been introducing standardized tests as part of a scheme to see what their students have learned before they enter the workforce, Wynne says. This includes private IHEs as well. "They see the need to demonstrate to their constituents that they've done what they've promised to do."

The state of Missouri is one such example: It set up general education criteria after the North Central Association, an accrediting body, required that institutions measure efficacy and student progress.

"Outcomes help you decide how
schools are doing when compared
against one another." -Bill Wynne, ETS

One Missouri community college, Mineral Area College, administers ACT's Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP) because it is more interested in measuring "institutional effectiveness" rather than what students have actually learned. The CAAP, according to Mike Easter, director of assessment at Mineral Area College's Assessment Center, measures "higher-order thinking and critical thinking," and writing. This appealed to Easter, who didn't see these skills being measured in other tests the school had tried. He also thought the other tests took too long to complete; CAAP has a four-hour time limit.

ETS claims about 350 institutions as regular customers of its Academic Profile, which measures college-level reading, critical thinking, writing, and math in the context of material from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. ETS' Academic Profile and other organizations' assessments can do comparisons of your institution to other institutions within your category. That category can range from organizational mission to regional comparisons.

The exit exams that are out there come from a small array of companies, and are sometimes even home-grown. Home-grown tests are created at institutions that have already seen a special need to assess their own students as they leave for the workforce, but don't think national standardized tests can accurately measure their students' competencies. Austin Peay State University (Tenn.), for example, created the Project for Area Concentration Achievement Testing (PACAT) in 1983 as a consortium of Tennessee psychology departments. By pooling their efforts to create an assessment, partner schools in the consortium can administer assessments yet maintain curriculum diversity.

Another popular home-grown test is the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination (College BASE), a criterion-referenced achievement test developed by the Assessment Resource Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia. More than 135 IHEs administer College BASE, which works to either qualify students for entry into teacher-education programs or as a general academic knowledge assessment.

In defense of standardized tests versus home-grown ones, Wynne says that IHEs usually think they have a staff adequately trained to create assessments. "But what they lose out on is the ability to benchmark themselves against other institutions." He says that every institution is unique, but standardized exit exams try to figure out what schools have in common with each other. "Outcomes help you decide how schools are doing when compared against one another."

Of course, there is a downside to testing college seniors. Steven Crow, executive director of the Higher Learning Commission, says that assessments are expensive, and, secondly, it is not always easy to get students to take tests willfully. Usually, exit exams are administered to college seniors who don't need to do well on the tests in order to graduate. Crow says some schools have had to pay students, or more cleverly, as in one school's case, have an iPod raffle. "It's not clear that students sense there is anything at stake in this. Whether students take this seriously is a concern."

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