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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