Is our college students learning?

Accreditors don’t just count the books in the college library, says the Wall Street Journal. They’re trying to get colleges to measure how much students are learning with a focus on writing and critical thinking.

. . . colleges are adopting various means of assessing learning in addition to classroom grades, from electronic portfolios that collect a student’s work from different courses to standardized testing and special projects for graduating seniors.

. . . Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and a commission she appointed on the future of higher education want colleges to be more accountable for — and candid about — student performance, and they have criticized accreditors as barriers to reform.

According to USA Today, the Spellings Commission isn’t trying to create No Undergrad Left Behind or a federal rating system for colleges. However, Spellings is pushing for a data base that would track students’ progress toward a degree, so families can analyze graduation rates.

Studies suggest about half of recent high school graduates who enroll in college full time complete their degree within six years.

Because of transfers and part-time students, analyzing graduation rates is difficult. Measuring education quality is even harder.

A 2006 report by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research shows that more than half of graduating students at four-year colleges and at least 75% at two-year colleges lack the literacy skills needed to handle tasks such as understanding credit card offers or summarizing arguments of newspaper editorials.

The commission urged colleges to measure and publish data on students’ learning using tools such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which compares the thinking, reasoning and writing skills of incoming freshmen and graduating seniors. The National Survey of Student Engagement “measures the time and effort seniors and freshmen say they put into various educational activities.”

Currently, colleges use these assessments internally but don’t publish the data for prospective students to evaluate. (Earlham College is an exception posting CLA and NSSE data online, USA Today says.)

Spellings compares choosing a college to buying a car. You want to know the features and kick the tires. A university president says it’s like choosing a mate. Without dating.

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  1. As someone about to commit to dropping $40,000 per year for 4 to 6 years on a college for my daughter, I’d certainly appreciate at least being able to consider information such as results from the NSSE or the CLA. Of course, were I part of the marketing team for those $40,000 per year colleges, I’d hate to see prospective customers be able to get that sort of information.

    As to: “at least 75% at two-year colleges lack the literacy skills needed to handle tasks such as understanding credit card offers”

    As a lawyer and former CPA, I can say with confidence that if more than 25% of people WERE able to understand these offers, folks with training like mine would just have to make them even more opaque.