Saturday, February 11, 2006

Letter to the Commission

I wrote letters to several of the members of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. It's not all that easy to find their email addresses, and I found only six in the time I spent looking. Here's the letter.

I'm writing to you regarding the progress of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. I applaud the efforts of your group to improve our educational system, but I have some concerns based on news reports I've read.

It seems that the Commission is considering using standardized testing (instruments like the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA)) as a metric to compare institutions. If so, this is a seriously flawed approach that could become an expensive lost opportunity.

Standardized testing is convenient, but not at all suitable to judge complex skills. In contrast, the National Council on Teachers of English (NCTE) has a very good set of guidelines for assessing writing. For example, students are ideally taught write deliberately, to revise, to use social connections to improve their work (short of plagiarism, obviously). None of this is possible in a standardized testing environment. Standardized tests may be convenient and reliable, but they suffer from a lack of validity. Sometimes test makers try to assure us that the "guys in white coats" have done all that technical stuff. This would contradict the very notion of validity--the meaning of the results. In fact, from a teacher's point of view, it's hard to figure out what a standardized test score *means* about the curriculum, unless one simply addresses very narrow skills that the test focuses on.

There are better, more valid, ways to assess student learning. For example, many colleges and universities now use student portfolios in association with specific learning objectives in order to set goals and assess them. This has obvious validity since it links outcomes to a huge database of direct evidence, and we have found at Coker College that inter-rater reliability is acceptable also. Of course, comparing such measures across institutions would be a nightmare. But the truth is, that parents don't care about *learning* per se (for the most part), and perhaps your commission shouldn't either.

What parents care about is how much earning potential their graduates will have. This is far easier to measure than "learning", and lends itself to the kinds of calculations that can validate or invalidate public financial aid. Are the costs of student loans justified by the increased earning power of graduates (after subtracting the opportunity costs)? There's no way to answer that question based on averages of standardized tests.

Since the US government already has on hand tax data and financial aid data, one would imagine that very detailed studies by institution, by state, by demographic, by major, and so on, could be accomplished relatively cheaply. Conventional wisdom is that a college degree is the best investment a young man or woman can make. A definitive study of that would be very enlightening and could guide policy. Conversely, we could maximize scores on some computer-scored test and end up with a generation of students who can only write poetry. (Not that there's anything wrong with poetry, but we need engineers and doctors too.)

I'm a mathematics teacher by training, and I still believe that a good education is about learning, not money. That's a healthy attitude from the perspective of the classroom. However, at the national level, the hard decisions of how much financial aid is "worth" it, or which institution does a better job of preparing students for a productive (economically) career, we're not really talking about learning anymore, but the *effects* of learning. From public documents it seems to me that the Commission may be conflating these. I hope you will reconsider before advocating more standardized testing.
It will be interesting to see if I get a response.

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