Colleges consider exit exams

Students are used to taking tests to get into college, writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. In the future, they may need to pass college exit exams to get out with a degree. Policymakers, parents and prospective employers want proof that graduates have learned something.

“There is a groundswell from the public about whether a college degree is worth what people are paying for it,” said Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Ohio. “People are asking for tangible demonstrations of what students know.”

In Ohio, candidates for education degrees must write a lesson plan, submit a video of their teaching and pass other tests. Accumulating credits isn’t enough.

The Wisconsin Technical College System requires graduating students to submit portfolios, research papers, test scores or other proof of what they know.

The University of Central Missouri requires students to pass the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination before they are allowed to graduate. (But the cutoff score is below “proficiency,” Marcus notes.)

“Isn’t it amazing that the newest and most brilliant idea out there is that students should achieve particular skills and prove it?” Marsha Watson, president of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, asked wryly. “Wow.”

Grade inflation is rampant at colleges and universities, researchers say. Forty-three percent of grades given out by college faculty are As.

Yet one-half of students about to graduate from four-year colleges and 75 percent at two-year schools fall below the “proficient” level of literacy, according to a survey by the American Institutes for Research. That means they’re unable to complete such real-world tasks as comparing credit-card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the two sides of an argument.

In a survey, a third of employers said college aren’t qualified for entry-level work.

More and more states, including Missouri, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, have approved using student exit-test results to determine how institutions are doing —though in most cases not yet to judge individual students or decide whether or not they should be allowed to get degrees — as one of the measures on which they base continued public university funding.

Nearly 50 colleges and universities in nine more states — Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah — are trying to develop a way to test students, before they graduate, in written communication and quantitative literacy, though so far this is also solely for the purpose of evaluating their own programs.

Developing ways to measure student learning “is time-consuming, complicated and expensive,” writes Marcus. It’s also deeply threatening to colleges and universities.

A few colleges now report learning outcomes for their graduates.

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  1. Hmm. Having completed my HS math requirements in my junior year, I then took no math for 5 years. A test taken my senior year in college would have indicated a loss of math skills. Would that be fair to the college?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      This may sound harsh but … if you’ve lost some skills, you’ve lost some skills and an honest assessment should reflect that. Period.

      • But, the lost skills are my fault, not the college’s.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          So? You don’t know it. If the college says that anyone who it gives a diploma to knows a certain level of math and you don’t, that’s dishonest.

          Now, if the college makes no representation as to the math ability of its graduates, then it’s not dishonest. In that case, it wouldn’t make any sense for the college to give a test that tests something it doesn’t care about.

          But if the college is making a representation about your math ability, and that representation is false because it never required you to keep your math skills current, then it is the college’s fault.

          • But college is not high school. College students are allowed to specialize. I may have lost some math skills while I pursued a degree in History, and an engineer might lose some foreign language skills while she became an engineer.

  2. I like this idea, due to the fact that many college students that I’ve had to interview lack a lot of skills which many employers and businesses consider critical, not the least of which is the ability to communicate effectively.

    Critical thinking and analysis skills help as well, along with math.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Here’s the problem from the college’s point of view: if the test is any good, and if they can get Courts to accept it, employers will no longer require a college degree.

    Adios universitas!

  4. Rebbecca Silva says:

    I feel as though students should have to pass some sort of exam in their program of study to be able to graduate. This would ensure that employers would be getting the cream of the crop students who have the appropriate skills. Some professions require a certification exam and this would be a good way to predict how well the student will do on that exam. It wold also be a good way for the educational programs to evaluate the program to see where the strengths and weaknesses are.

    • Programs eligible for professional certification exams, such as nursing, are in no need of in-college exams. Students can use the licensure prep materials as needed, on their own. Programs are judged on the licensure pass rate. The programs with no real-world assessments are the ones who could best use exit testing. A possible example would be ES teachers passing content exams in math, ELA (phonics, grammar, composition), geography, science, history and government.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Ms. Silva,

      In one sense, students do have to pass exams. They have to pass exams for each of their classes. But there’s a couple of reasons that I think your proposal (departmental exams) wouldn’t really accomplish the sorts of things you might hope they would.

      First off, employers don’t always — or even usually — care what the program of study is. They just want general competence, which a college degree is supposed to signify. (In cases where they do care, the interview process usually clears away the chaff who don’t know their stuff.) So we could have departmental exit exams — but they wouldn’t be that useful to employers.

      (Count me as someone who doesn’t think a college degree is supposed to be about *employers* in the first place anyway.)

      Subject-specific comps are a great idea — but they’re also a lot of work and probably not practical at the undergrad level at many universities. A lot of departments at larger universities have over 80 students a year graduating. That’s 80 comps. So Orals would have to be out of the question — no one has that sort of time. That means a written comp, and THAT means having to establish a departmental core program. But a lot of departments don’t have that. The only classes that you HAVE to take in Philosophy, for example, are usually a logic class and a historical survey series. Everything else is usually an “area” requirement. UCLA’s been in the news recently because its English department got rid of the Chaucer+2xShakespeare requirement in favor of area requirements. So that means either re-working the curriculum from scratch, or producing custom-exams for each student, which we already saw is out of the question at large departments.

      So it’s a neat idea in theory, but I just don’t see it as really addressing any concerns.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Perhaps a college degree should not be about employers. However, that’s the reason most students go to college and that’s the reason there are government loans to pay for it, and that’s the reason for much of the subsidies and special treatment that colleges get.

        I would have tremendous respect for a college that said, “Don’t come here if you’re looking to qualify for a job. We don’t teach you job skills. Our mission is to help you become an educated person. We do that by exposing you to various academic disciplines and requiring you to eventually concentrate on one.”

        But no college does that. Instead, they promise, explicitly or implicitly, “having a degree from us will help you get a better job than you could get without one.”

  5. The irony is that we could fix most college quality problems with an *entrance* exam, but that would result in leaving all but maybe 10% of blacks and 20% of Hispanics out of college.

    Of course, an exit exam will have the same disparate impact problems unless it’s made quite simple. And if it’s made quite simple it won’t solve the problems that the proponents want to solve.

    • Just recently, Jesse Jackson was complaining about the lack of “diversity” at Oxford and Cambridge, where the only criteria for entry are test scores. We could use SAT/ACT/AP to create high-performing colleges, too. Even with generous scholarships, it would be cheaper; fewer facilities for many fewer students, no need for most of the admissions people, tutoring people, diversity apparatus, most of the other useless admins, and many fewer beer and circus activities for those who are there only for them. But, colleges wouldn’t “look like America” ! (of course many of the “diversity”- AA- admits are recent immigrants).

  6. While this isn’t a college issue, my home state of Nevada is considering lowering the passing score on the math proficiency exam from 300 out of 500 to something along the lines of 250-260 out of 500.

    I sent email posts to the chair of the state board of education, and a board member who thinks we should just get rid of the exams, since they have nothing in common with college or workforce success (is he for a surprise).

    IMO, the emails will probably fall on deaf ears. When you want to increase the graduation rate, just lower standards, not increase them. I told one board member “why bother with high school? Give them a high school diploma after 8th grade and have them go get a job”.