No, We Definitely Don’t Need Value-Added Testing for College: Crisis Capitalism Meets the Academy

With the legitimate concerns over the high costs of college combined with the inability of many graduates to find work after college (although, that has a lot to do with a lousy economy and hiring practices), we are hearing increasing calls for assessing the educational performance of colleges. In other words, are students ‘getting their money’s worth’? I’ve argued that a college education, as currently constituted, is a good thing, but the massive debt too many graduates have incurred is the problem, so I won’t entirely rehash that argument.

What I find very troubling is the call for evaluation to colleges and universities. To be clear, colleges and universities should be releasing graduation rates as a condition of receiving federal funding (and they all do receive funding in one way or another)–the only thing worse than going into debt for a college degree is to rack debt and not receive the degree. But calling for value-added testing–which works so fucking well for K-12 education–at the college level is a solution for the wrong problem:

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.

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.

This is off base in so many ways. As McSweeney’s satirized in “The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid is Your Liberal Arts Degree“:

I need someone who can read The Bell Jar and make strong observations about its representations of mental health and the repression of women. Sure, you’ve never even flown a plane before, but with only ten days until the asteroid hits, there’s no one better to nuke an asteroid.

I’ve seen your work and it’s damn impressive. Your midterm paper on the semiotics of Band of Outsiders turned a lot of heads at mission control… And a lot of the research we do here couldn’t have happened without your groundbreaking work on suburban malaise and its representation and repression in John Hughes’ films.

Look, most employers really don’t care what things students learned. The exception to this are some of the ‘pre-‘ majors such as pre-med and pre-graduate school training. Likewise, some of the technical fields also evaluate graduates based on coursework (although it usually has more to do program and school reputation). Worse, value-added testing corrupts the purpose of a college education–teaching to the test destroys the notion of scholarship.

Just as standardized testing has destroyed the support for subjects that aren’t tested in K-12 education, it will do the same at colleges. Ideally, students do not simply learn some things in a major, they learn something about that major–how that field operates, how scholars generate and analyze data, and how they communicate. For me, one of the most useful experiences I had was the undergraduate thesis: I basically became a ‘mini-scholar.’ Even if I hadn’t gone onto graduate school–or continued in biology–this was arguably the best learning experience I had. I was immersed in an area, conducted my own research (albeit with supervision), and had to put together a large, coherent document, and present the work in a practiced and critiqued spoken presentation. But if schools are concerned about teaching to exams, they will downplay these scholarship experiences, if not eliminate. Thanks to U.S. News and World Reports, colleges and universities are already engaged in all sorts of shenanigans to game the rankings*. It will be far worse if standardized testing takes hold.

College does a lot of things for students. Not only does it offer opportunities for serious scholarship (which, too often, aren’t taken advantage of by students), but there are a lot of ‘life experiences’ that are incredibly useful. It gives you a reason to get the hell out of that goddamn town. It exposes you to people you otherwise wouldn’t meet. It gives you an opportunity to develop independently of family, to finally leave the nest**. You can engage in extracurricular activities that wouldn’t reflected in standardized testing (theater, music, journalism) which provide all sorts of intangible benefits. College also provides some general skills students hopefully acquire: the ability to speak, write, and read that are hard to gauge through a standardized test.

Hell, if you want everyone to take the general portion of the GRE when they enter and when they leave, fine. I’m not sure what that tells you–and students with high-achieving entering bodies will seem worse than they are. We should be letting students and their parents learn about graduation rates, broken down by socioeconomic status, so they don’t get suckered into a debt they can’t afford. But testing is a solution for a non-problem. Instead, we might want to jumpstart the economy and create some jobs for graduates.

On the other hand, if one’s political ideology defines college professors as the warpers of young Americans and parasites on the rest of us, then deflecting the anxiety over unemployment, debt, and the decrease of state and federal support for universities into an attack on colleges (and giving lucrative commercial opportunities to testing companies) is the way to go.

Just saying.

*When I was a post-doc at a tony Northeastern elite university, more than one professor was frustrated at having to cap classes at nineteen students. Why nineteen? Because U.S. News and World Reports uses the number of classes that have a student:teacher ratio of less than 20 to 1 as a metric. Thus, the cap of nineteen.

**Amazingly, I read stories about students who use cellphones and email to constantly stay in touch with their parents. I love my parents and vice versa, but for Intelligent Designer’s sake, cut the fucking cord. It will be better for all involved parties.

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4 Responses to No, We Definitely Don’t Need Value-Added Testing for College: Crisis Capitalism Meets the Academy

  1. sciliz says:

    I’m fine with dismissing the testing obsessed mentality, but I do think we have to bring value-added measures to colleges/universities.
    The truth is, few people who go to one of those tiny private schools that breed such fierce loyalty in their alumni wants to hear that their college did nothing, and that they were kids of privilege and would have succeeded anywhere (or indeed, without college at all) and their college is absolutely useless as a force for greater social good than encouraging bright privileged kids to shine as even more special stars. But it’s often true.
    I don’t really mind supporting those schools (via federal financial aid to students if they are private), but I also see what they do as utterly inferior (from a social-value perspective) to schools that take in students who represent more challenging cases and put out really productive citizens, at rates much higher than similarly positioned schools do. If you’ve got students of color, or students from lower SES backgrounds, or students who have spottier preparation, and you’re consistently graduating them and getting them into good careers despite the shitty economy- THAT’S what we need to figure out how to emulate. Otherwise people will just try to pretend they are the tony elites that game the rankings.
    Higher ed is much more than vocational training, but</i. if you have a uni that CAN'T (by way of it's design) facilitate upward social mobility, you've got a uni I've got comparatively little compelling reason to support with taxes. Which is probably why the state unis are actually under attack by the wishy-washy middle and not just the anti-education extremists.

    • I would argue that much of what college teaches you isn’t about mastery of a body of curriculum. It’s more general than that. To the extent there’s a networking problem (and I think there is one), all VAT will do is shuffle around which schools are best at networking, while at the same time destroying any chance of inquiry-based learning at every instution.

      • sciliz says:

        You don’t actually object to portfolios and capstone projects (the examples cited in the Brooks article), right? Value-added “assessment” is bigger than VAT ala NCLB.

        But a more fundamental question is whether inquiry-based learning is more important than networking. I would definitely say both are good things, but as far as impact on social mobility, I suspect the networks are more critical.

  2. g2-8cc6b52a22fca03cb35836f2c5d50979 says:

    I just got an MS from a, shall we say, not top-ranked college in the California State University system. They constantly self-assess; they’re primarily a teaching college and they know it. But so many of their students are unprepared for the classes — even the remedial classes — they take, that the graduation rate is shockingly low. It’s also a commuter school, and virtually every student is working. Meanwhile, classes are increasingly squeezed by budget cuts, and it isn’t unusual to find even seniors still making up units in this or that category by taking community college classes on the side. Quite frankly, I don’t know how you fix the situation, except with more money than California has right now.

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