Sunday, April 08, 2012

Testing, One, Two, Three

The attempt to get some accountability out of American schools has produced a mania for testing. That may be on the point of moving to the university level, or so it is argued in the NYT:

How well does a college teach, and what do its students learn? Rankings based on the credentials of entering freshmen are not hard to find, but how can students, parents and policy makers assess how well a college builds on that foundation? What information exists has often been hidden from public view. But that may be changing. ... In January, the New Leadership Alliance released guidelines calling on colleges to systematically “gather evidence of student learning” — though not explicitly advocating standardized tests — and release the results. The report was endorsed by several major organizations of colleges and universities. Advocates say the point is not to measure how each college’s students perform after four years, which depends heavily on the caliber of students it enrolls in the first place, but to see how much they improve along the way. The concern is less about measuring knowledge of chemistry or literature than about harder to define skills like critical thinking and problem-solving.

A lot of schools fear this like death. Not many parents like to hear that they have invested more than the price of their cars and house in an education that sucks. They love to talk about intellectual maturity, critical-thinking, collaboration skills and other crap that might be hard to test.

Not to disparage those skills, but really, how well can you learn them from sitting in a lecture hall with a zillion other students listening to some geezer talk.

At the moment, American universities and colleges have control of a crucial resource, which they use to extract formidable rents, but that control might be in danger of slipping. I'm talking about the degrees that they hand out. Those degrees are worth a lot of money, and they extract plenty from those who receive them.

Once upon a time, universities were almost the only path to advanced knowledge, since they had the teacher and the libraries. The internet offers a severe challenge to that business model.