Federal government proposes standardized tests for college students

By Samantha Egan

In a statement last month, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings suggested a standardized test for college students, which she said would hold higher education more accountable to students and parents.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which was appointed by Spellings, originally proposed the test and a centralized database of its results.

Student success would be measured by student learning assessment exams, said a report of the commission’s findings. For example, the Collegiate Learning Assessment evaluates students’ critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills based on national averages throughout the country.

The proposed database would provide information both on the university’s statistics, such as financial aid and graduation rates, and how successful students at the university are at school.

The database would be used to weigh different aspects of education when deciding on a college, the commission reported.

“[The] lack of useful data and accountability hinders policy makers and the public from making informed decisions and prevents higher education from demonstrating its contribution to the public good,” the report said.

The overall purpose of the commission formed by Spellings was to establish goals that “spell out what our commission expects from American higher education.” These goals included examination of the access, affordability, quality and accountability of post-secondary institutions to students.

According to the report, student achievement would be measured by “how much students’ skills have improved over time” and the success of students after they graduate from college.

Susan Powers-Lee, interim provost for undergraduate education, expressed her concern about the “richness” of the assessment.

“One would feel like the more data you have, the more likely you will get a conclusion,” Powers-Lee said. However, she said these exams may not be effective in measuring the two key skills of a college student: the ability to identify and solve problems, and the ability to write persuasively.

“Any assessment that you could give a number to probably wouldn’t effectively measure these skills that are needed in life,” Powers-Lee said.

Some students agreed, saying a standardized test is too narrow to account for the variety of students and majors in a college setting.

Dorise Gruber, a first year graduate student for college-student development and counseling, said she would be hesitant to participate in the assessments.

“I’d have to know more about the test,” Gruber said, adding that she was concerned the data could be exaggerated to fit Spellings’ goals since “you can interpret data any way you want to see it.”

However, freshman undecided major Avery Mehlhorn said she would consider participating in assessment exams for the program.

“I would feel comfortable doing the tests as long as they took into account what my major was and where I wanted to go in life,” Mehlhorn said.

The test should gauge how prepared students are for what they chose to concentrate on in college, rather than being compared to others with different paths, she said.

Despite the fact that the commission ensures the privacy of students who provide input for the database, noting the system would not include “individually identifiable information such as student names or Social Security numbers,” critics of the plan fear the database has the potential to develop into a tracking system in the long term.

Glenn Hill, director of information security and identity services at Northeastern, said he was unaware of Spellings’ database proposal and therefore was unable to say if Northeastern would participate in such a program.

However, Hill did emphasize that students should be aware of exactly what personal information is being sought from them and why, with whom it would it be shared and how it would be protected.

Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy shared Hill’s misgivings. “Significant questions exist about creating a national database,” Kennedy said in a release.

“These ideas require serious study and discussion involving both the higher education community and Congress,” he said.

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