May 2012
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A Better Way to Evaluate Colleges—And Improve Education?

Richard Kahlenberg, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2012

College rankings like those of the US News & World Report pose a number of problems, not the least of which is the fact they rely heavily on “inputs” like entering student SAT scores, rather than what students actually learn in college. But it’s not just the ranking systems that ignore learning—state and federal policies tend to reward and punish colleges based on their completion rates. The situation poses problems for both college access and quality of learning, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. When prestige is determined by selectivity and the merits of incoming students, colleges are inclined to admit only the most privileged and well-prepared students. Meanwhile, a focus on “degree production” without attending to the learning represented by those degrees risks undermining the quality of education for those students who are admitted.

A possible solution to both these issues is the use of assessments that measure what students actually learn in college, Kahlenberg says. He points to new assessment tools and initiatives such AAC&U’s VALUE project that focus on broad learning outcomes, as demonstrated in e-portfolios and capstone projects, as the kind of measures that could shift the national conversation toward the quality of learning students experience. Lawmakers, and concerned students and their parents, will likely demand more assessment in the future, not less, Kahlenberg says—better to implement measures now that focus on authentic representations of student work, or else be saddled with more standardized testing in the future.

If the measure of institutional prestige and accountability is how much students learn, legislative policy can focus on quality and completion, and the institutions themselves may be less tempted to cherry-pick the best-prepared students, and instead admit underrepresented students whose test scores may not represent their potential. “A focus on learning gains,” Kahlenberg says, “might provide colleges with a self-interested rationale to promote social mobility—something which is a big part of what American education is supposed to be all about.”

Read the full essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education.


The articles featured in AAC&U News Perspectives do not necessarily represent the views of AAC&U staff, its board of directors, or its membership.