Higher Education

Seriously, How Much Did You Learn in College?


Seriously, How Much Did You Learn in College?

Photograph by Bob O'Connor/Gallery Stock

Now here’s a fresh idea: College grads are starting to be judged by how much they learned instead of how much ivy grew on their campus walls or how good their football team was. Standardized tests that were once strictly for high school are invading higher education.

A story today in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) reports that:

“Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students’ real value to employers.”

It’s called the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, and it’s administered by the Council for Aid to Education. The CLA+ isn’t multiple choice, like the SAT. It requires students to write lengthy essays to test their scientific and quantitative reasoning, critical reading comprehension, problem-solving skills, and writing ability.

The Educational Testing Service, which runs the beloved (not) SAT, has its own two-year pilot program, which began last December, in which students can have their GRE scores sent to potential employers, not just to graduate schools.

This could be big. If standardized testing becomes the norm in higher education, little-known schools that truly educate their students could leapfrog over famous ones whose students coast once they’re safely in the door. Standardized testing could be a boon in particular to such organizations as edX, Udacity, and Coursera that offer massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Today I interviewed Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, a New York City-based nonprofit. He described himself as “an old arts-and-sciences guy” who was initially suspicious of standardized testing.

What changed his mind, he said, was the magnitude of the challenge. “We have got to move very aggressively to provide post-secondary education and training” to millions of Americans, and “there aren’t enough spots in Princeton” for all of them, he says. Third-party corroboration from organizations such as his and the ETS can help solve the problem, Benjamin says, by validating the quality of the education provided by new and less-familiar institutions.

I also spoke with Christine Betaneli, a spokesman for the higher education division of the ETS. She says that in addition to letting college grads have their GRE scores sent to employers, ETS is offering two tests, the ETS Proficiency Profile and the iSkills Assessment. Students who take those get certificates they can list on their résumés.

Betaneli says the certification is popular with schools that feel they have something to prove. “We know from our work with our customers,” she says, “that they are eager to demonstrate the learning that’s taking place at their institutions.”

The ground under higher ed is beginning to tremble.

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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