Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Standardized College

Lawmakers in Washington are concerned about the quality of education that college students actually get – even at elite institutions. Now , the Bush administration has appointed a commission that’s considering standardized testing

Do lawmakers even ask themselves if there is a problem before they go out and fix it? American colleges and universities are considered the best in the world. If you are the best why would anyone try to fix it? “If it ain’t broke … “ so the saying goes. So what are they trying to fix?

Colleges and Universities must be held accountable. Parents should know how long it will take the child to graduate, how much it will cost and the chances their son or daughter will drop out.

As any person that has ever gone to college knows, each of those points is controlled by the student, not the parent. Students decide how heavy their course load is. Students decide how long they want to milk their parents attend school. Students decide when they cannot longer handle the rigors of college. A college simply can’t provide this data.

There are two primary concerns that one should have (even if they aren’t libertarian and oppose government meddling in almost anything). First, how do you standardize testing in secondary education? Even for students that are in the same program, the courses that one takes are vastly different. My roommate and I were both engineering majors in college, yet we only had one class in common. Nevermind students that attend different schools, enroll in different curricula or have different career goals. If I, as a student, am forced to take chemistry but know that my career will never involve chemistry of any kind I am not going to spend any effort in learning chemistry – the fault is mine, not my college’s. So how would standardized testing work?

Even if that [consumers of education are not complaining about a lack of information on quality of education] is true, the data available is saying there are problems. Too many college graduates are not ready for the world of work. A literacy study by the Pew charitable trust released last month for example showed that over 50% of students at 4 year institutions cannot understand a newspaper story or editorial and struggled with basic with basic math like figuring out a 15% tip.

First, I am highly skeptical that 50% of college grads are not capable of understanding a newspaper story. But, for the moment, let’s assume its true – it doesn’t mean that colleges aren’t doing their job, it means we are sending too many people to college (or at the very least primary education is lacking). College is advanced education, it assumes that you already have basic reading comprehension and basic math mastered. The very last thing that we want to do is start asking colleges to retrain students on the basics. After all, we have a problem with American competiveness, we don’t want to take a step backwards now.

Everybody’s in the dark and poor graduation and retention rates are only the tip of a much bigger problem. So Spelling has appointed a commission on the future of higher education. It is headed by a businessman from Houston and long time advocate of standardized tests for colleges, Charles Miller.

So they have ensured that the findings of the commission will recommend standardized testing before they have collected a single data point. This should hardly be surprising for anyone that follows governments. Their goal is not to make our lives better; it is to fulfill their own agenda – no more, no less.

Since government is not truly accountable to anyone beware anything that they recommend, dimes to doughnuts it will make things worse than they are now. The US collegiate “industry” is the best in the world, there is no reason to make it any better by government intervention. Even on the off chance that they are right, there is indeed a problem, there is no way to undo their “fix” if it is wrong, there are always vested interests in maintaining the status quo. At least in the market the vested interest is in making more money so they are always trying to out-compete the next guy. If they are wrong then only they lose – when government forces everyone to play by the same rules everyone loses.

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