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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Higher education shouldn't get 'test'-y

Recently, the Bush Administration appointed a commission to consider implementing standardized testing in colleges and universities across the nation. Proponents of the system say that implementing standardized testing in colleges will enable informed comparison among schools.

Schools that fail to meet basic standards can be easily identified and threatened with withdrawn funding. Through standardized testing, colleges which might otherwise have continued to operate at a sub-par level will be provided with an incentive to improve.

The decision will most directly impact public universities, but all universities that receive public funding, including Tufts, could be affected. Schools that receive public funding can be pressured financially to conform to the norms of public universities.

Part of the rationale behind the commission is the idea that selecting and paying for a college education is a substantial investment of time and money, and potential consumers should have access to as much information as possible. Standardized testing, the thinking goes, will allow prospective students to fairly compare the colleges they are considering.

There is no question that choosing a college is a complicated, involved process that is often fraught with stress. But better ways of evaluating colleges are already available: retention rates; percentage of students who graduate in four, five or six years; students' self-reported satisfaction with the schools; rates of acceptance into graduate schools; and class sizes.

Furthermore, the most important things for a student to learn at college are not easily evaluated by standardized tests. Standardized tests are a suitable way to evaluate high school students because a high school education is largely fact-based and because there is something approaching a nationwide curriculum - most everybody takes "Algebra I" and "U.S. History."

A college education, however, is more sophisticated. A good one teaches a student to think critically and innovatively. To be prepared for entry into the workplace, a college student needs to master skills that go beyond the rote recitation necessary to excel at standardized tests. Leadership, imagination and the capacity to question are the kinds of qualities a good college education helps cultivate, but they are nearly impossible to measure through a standardized test.

One of the great things about college is the extent to which it enables students to design their own education. Even at a small school with extensive distribution requirements, like Tufts, students have the opportunity to incorporate a great deal of variety into their courses of study.

Teaching and learning with an eye to standardized testing would make an individualized course of study difficult. For some humanities subjects - like philosophy, for example - it is hard to imagine what a standardized test would possibly look like.

Tests administered by major would be hopelessly hard to implement, since the subject matter covered by different students with the same major can vary so widely. And tests administered for everybody, regardless of major, would severely limit schools' discretion in creating distribution requirements.

And as NPR pointed out in a Feb. 14 report on the commission, most college professors have Ph.D.s in their fields, and so are better-equipped than bureaucrats to know what's most important for students to learn. Implementing standardized testing will greatly limit professors' freedom to teach.

A further complication that has generated little discussion so far is the question of whether standardized testing in colleges could create inequities based on socioeconomic status. At first, this seems counterintuitive: a nationwide standardized test would seem, at the very least, to evaluate every student against the same yardstick.

But consider the hysteria surrounding SAT preparation, and the amount of money wealthy parents are often willing to spend to improve their children's scores.

Standardized testing at the university level would inevitably spawn test books, tapes and courses that would be unaffordable for many students. Standardized testing for college students, while well-intentioned, could create yet another opportunity for wealthier students to buy increased chances of success.

Finally, students' academic lives are already permeated by standardized testing. The number of standardized hoops students must jump through to get to college (SATs, APs, ACTs) is matched only by the number they must jump through to get out of college (LSATs, GREs, etc.).

College is, and should remain, a respite from this cycle. College students are repeatedly admonished to develop those skills which have direct bearing on real life - and mastering those skills is a test in itself.

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