Elis who thought their days of No. 2 pencils and standardized tests were long gone could be up for a rude awakening, pending the outcome of U.S. Department of Education discussions about the possibility of standardized testing for undergraduates.
The plan has been proposed by an Education Department commission as a way of increasing institutions’ accountability and measuring what students learn over the course of an often expensive college education. But University officials said that while data collection is important for assessing institutions, Yale may not benefit from the information gathered from standardized tests, as differences between schools must be taken into account.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said that since the release of a report by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and often referred to as the Spellings Commission, campuses around the nation have been buzzing about the question of assessing students’ academic performance. While the question of how much students learn does not seem complicated, he said, measuring it empirically is very complex. This is especially true at a liberal arts institution like Yale, where the focus is on education for the sake of learning, not for the sake of passing an exam, he said.
“Much of the value of a Yale education cannot easily be captured by standardized tests, especially those focused on specific content areas rather than general skills,” Salovey said. “Although I am quite interested in discussing how to assess the impact of a college education, it goes without saying, of course, that I would not be in favor of a curriculum designed so that students could score well on this or that test.”
Accreditation agencies — including the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, of which Yale is a member — have been working hard to stop the Department of Education’s aggressive effort to install new procedures. Barbara Brittingham, director of the NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, said the organization wants institutions to make individual decisions about how to evaluate themselves.
“Our commission supports institutional autonomy and the importance for each institution of defining, within its mission, its goals for student learning — and figuring out how to assess its success and the success of its students,” Brittingham said. “For some institutions, a component of standardized testing may be useful — but that is up to them to determine.”
Brittingham, who has testified for the Spellings Commission twice, said the accreditation agency is pushing for a system in which colleges and universities can state their own goals, measure student learning and success, and subsequently use that information to make improvements in their curriculums and general procedures.
The Spellings Commission announced last fall that it plans to revisit the federal regulations on accreditation in order to determine whether the Education Department has the legal authority to make many of the changes that it is considering, Inside Higher Education reported Thursday. While the commission has repeatedly asserted that it does have such power, accreditation agencies have spoken out against the extent of the measures for evaluation that the commission is suggesting.
Students said the issue of comparability is a major and relevant one for an institution like Yale, though there are many issues to consider when evaluating the effectiveness and utility of such tests at the University.
Stephen Kappa ’07 said he thinks Yale administrators would be opposed to the idea of a standardized test in the context of a liberal arts education.
“Anytime you have a one-size-fits-all federal government policy, it’s not going to fit every school, and I doubt it will be a good fit for Yale,” Kappa said.
Preparing for the standardized tests that Yale students already take — such as the MCAT, the LSAT and the GRE — is very time consuming on top of coursework, Kappa said.
But Eve Burstein ’08 said while she is not sure how useful the data generated from such tests would be, she is not necessarily opposed to seeing them implemented at Yale. Although she thinks the possibility of teaching to the test will come up, she thinks it can be avoided.
“Once you’re at Yale, no one really questions you on whether you’re learning or not — for better of for worse,” Burstein said. “I guess [teaching to the test] would be a concern because it is a concern in middle schools and high schools, but I think it’s definitely possible to perform well on a test given just a basic set of skills.”
University officials said Yale has been actively participating in discussions in Washington, D.C. about the proposal, and President Richard Levin met with the chief of staff of the Department of Education to discuss issues of data collection and university assessment.