Greater accountability - via standardized testing of undergraduates - is a concept whose time has come in higher education. This is partly the result of sharply rising costs and partly a logical extension of the test-based reforms that have swept through elementary and secondary education. In Maryland and elsewhere, virtually every public or private college these days is studying or trying out some means of better demonstrating the overall learning gains of its undergraduates.
But now the Bush administration has a commission looking at the feasibility of comparing colleges by administering nationally standardized tests to their students - a superficially appealing but highly questionable proposition.
Who could be against more accountability? Or against firmer measures of the learning that institutions impart to their students? Not taxpayers supporting public colleges. Not parents paying soaring tuition bills. Trouble is, if the one-size-fits-all approach ensures at least a minimum of learning in grades K-12, national assessments mandated from Washington seem inappropriate for many colleges.
And they could well be damaging - in that uniform testing would conflict with one of the great strengths of American higher education: its endless diversity. It's hard to see how the same test would be fitting for a biochemistry major at Johns Hopkins, a budding kindergarten teacher studying at Coppin State University and a business student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Throw in colleges' varying intangibles, and an across-the-board measure becomes even more impractical.
Not that taxpayers, parents and students couldn't use new and firmer measures of colleges' added value. Already, of course, there are any number of such gauges, including schools' retention, graduation and graduate-school acceptance rates. Some majors (teaching) and professions (engineers) require students to pass standardized tests. Savvy consumers and analysts of higher education can compare these data, but most colleges need to do a much better job of presenting it. In the absence of nationally mandated assessments, they should be adopting their own tests of students' learning - particular to the purposes of each college or even each major.
What's definitely not needed is a new federal initiative M-' la No Child Left Behind. Instead, colleges should be encouraged to demonstrate their value in objective but varied ways - in keeping with their diverse niches in the higher-education marketplace.