Politics & Policy

Spellings Bee

The problem with standardized testing in higher education.

Last Thursday, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings held a “summit” in Washington of 250 leaders from business and academe. Dubbed “A Test of Leadership,” the summit was Spellings’s latest effort to overcome skepticism over her aggressive plan to change the ground rules of American higher education. That plan has five parts, and while all five deserve gimlet-eyed scrutiny, one of them — “outcomes assessment” — is exceptionally mischievous.

The five bees in Spellings’s bonnet: aligning K-12 education with higher ed; increasing needs-based aid to students; putting “student learning outcomes” at the center of accreditation; serving adult learners and non-traditional students; and “enhancing affordability, decreasing costs, and promoting productivity.” All five bees, of course, belong to one hive. Spellings’s basic idea is that everyone — or almost everyone — should go to college. To that end, K-12 education should lead seamlessly to college; adult learners should be there, too; and resources should be “made available” to make this possible.

This idea is by no means new. President Clinton proposed something similar in his 1997 State of the Union address — the one in which he called for a national entitlement to two years of college for every American and a tax deduction for college tuition. The notion that more and more education will bring prosperity to America and happiness to Americans is a political perennial. Never mind that a college degree is an expensive waste of time for a great many students.

Spellings’s five-point plan and her “Test for Leadership” balance on this dilemma. She likes the honey of populist appeal — College for everyone! — but she is simultaneously aware that many college students graduate with a derisory education and that higher education gives little return to society for the enormous resources it sops up. Over the last year, Spellings has alternated between the honey and the vinegar (as the blogger Dr. Tax puts it), to the point that observers speak of her as being both the good cop and the bad cop, and wonder which one will show up on any given occasion. As Inside Higher Education put it, Spellings is “sometime foe and sometime friend.”

At last week’s summit, it was good cop Spellings who delivered a lunchtime address. That is, she said the sorts of things that liberal (and self-interested) academics like to hear. She spoke of the need for more low-income and minority students in college, and she ratcheted up her patented “no child left behind” theme to include college students: “Too many children are being left behind at a time when it has never been more important to pursue higher education.”

I’m not so sure of that point, but I’ll leave it for another time. The real question is: How does Spellings think she can square this circle? How are we going to massively increase the number of students who attend college and, at the same time, increase academic standards? When we have a system that, as it currently works, frequently offers a gossamer-think college degree at a Gucci price, how exactly do we benefit students or society by expanding it still further?

Her answer: the Queen Bee of “outcomes assessment.” That means a regime of testing, testing, testing for college students, with the results reported up the line to the U.S. Department of Education.

What exactly this would look like, we don’t know. In February, one of Spellings’s panels stripped out some of the harshest provisions from her proposal. One of the “working groups” at last Thursday’s summit took up the issue again. The group, chaired by a vice chancellor from the University of Texas, Geri Hockfield Malandra, emphasized “annual assessment reports of institutional outcomes in a public-friendly way” and called for “creating ownership at the institutional level” of student-learning outcomes.

Lost? Let me translate.

Two weeks ago, in “Prove You’re Not Stupid,” I explained that Secretary Spellings is killing off one of the important reforms that followed from conservative critiques of higher education. She is putting the ax to the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) because this organization is not friendly to her bee. AALE accredits colleges that offer rigorous classical and traditional liberal-arts degree programs. And such programs don’t lend themselves to the simplistic “outcomes assessment” that Spellings wishes to impose across all of higher education.

Spellings’s push for outcomes assessment has so far raised barely a ripple of concern outside academe — and the ripples within the academy have been limited. The Chronicle of Higher Education declared, “Spellings Wants to use Accreditation as a Cudgel.” Inside Higher Education has worried, “When Is Student Learning ‘Good Enough’?” Ax, cudgel, blackjack…something about Ms. Spellings seems to suggest blunt force.

Bad Cop Spellings’s admonitory notes are the sort of thing that has not been heard at DOE since the days when William Bennett held the office. In October, Spellings mocked educrats who say American higher education is doing fine: “Is it fine that college tuition has outpaced inflation, family income, even doubling the cost of health care? Is it fine that only half of our students graduate on time? Is it fine that students graduate from college so saddled with debt that they can’t buy a home or start a family?”

But what ticks off Spellings more than anything else is higher education’s self-serving way of judging its own performance. No, she is not snapping at U.S. News & World Report’s annual beauty contest for colleges and universities. Rather, Spellings is calling out the accrediting agencies (e.g., the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Southern States, Central States, etc. — and AALE as well) that get their authority through the U.S. Department of Education.

This is a tactically smart move for several reasons. First, it is hard for people to get worked up about accreditation. If higher education had a snooze button, it would be an accrediting agency. Accrediting usually concerns the dull bureaucratic details of higher education, not the incandescent scandals that light up universities several times a year. If you want to insinuate radical changes without arousing public concern, accreditation is the way to go.

Another reason that co-opting or cudgeling accrediting agencies is a smart move for Spellings is that it allows her to by-pass the Democratic Congress. The head of DOE already pulls the strings on accreditation. Spellings needs no additional authorization.

And, as cudgels go, accreditation is a good one — a St. Patrick’s Day-sized shillelagh, in fact, because nearly every federal dollar that goes to a college or university is yoked to its accreditation.

So what does she think is wrong with the accreditors? Spellings explained in September: “Right now, accreditation…is largely focused on inputs, more on how many books are in a college library, than whether students can actually understand them…Institutions are asked, ‘Are you measuring student learning?’ And they check yes or no. That must change. Whether students are learning is not a yes-or-no question. It’s how? How much? And to what effect?”

This sounds sensible at one level. We would not judge the quality of cooking in a restaurant by the number of cookbooks in the chef’s library. We wouldn’t judge a house-builder solely on the quality of his bricks. We want to judge the results. In short, we want outcomes assessment. Don’t we?

I doubt it. I’ve been through college outcomes assessment more than once. If you are a businessman, think back to the glory days of Total Quality Management. Outcomes assessment is the educational version of TQM, which in turn grew out of the post-WWII initiatives of W. Edwards Deming, the statistician who made a religion out of quality control on the production line. Deming-ism and TQM have faded out as one of yesteryears’ fads in the business world, but they have had a long afterlife in the intellectual Sahara of higher education bureaucracy. Accreditors have been pushing this stuff since the end of the eighties.

In that light, Spellings’s move looks especially clever. The accreditors are already bound hand and foot to the rhetoric of “outcomes assessment,” and most colleges are, too, since they have to be reaccredited every ten years and loyalty oaths to “outcomes assessment” are part of the game. Spellings is thus asking higher education to deliver what it already promises.

The trouble is that when Spellings talks about “inputs and outputs,” she means it. Inputs and outputs are, of course, the language of computer science and information processing. If you think that, deep down, higher education is best understood as a kind of computer that processes students and chunks them out with better brains, then I guess “inputs and outputs” sums up the challenge of reforming higher education. We want more and better outputs for our investment.

This way of thinking has its appeal, not least because it sounds scientific. But it isn’t, really. College students are more than packaged neurons, and what they learn is more than mere information. We educate — or at least strive to educate — whole people: minds, imaginations, and motivations included. If a college succeeds, it changes the scope of a student’s thinking. New subjects come into view; new ambitions take shape; and the student learns to integrate all this newness. That’s just not the same thing as processing information. It has something to do with character. College rarely transforms character completely, but four-years of college study changes most students unmistakably. Usually for the better.

I imagine Spellings would agree with this in some general way. But she nonetheless pushes for reforms that amplify the merely utilitarian aspects of a college education — the measurable bits of knowledge and testable skills that can be packed into the years between freshman orientation and Commencement weekend. This is Mr. Gradgrind’s university — Dickens’s schoolmaster in Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

In the spirit of sticking to the facts, I should note the real-life Grandgrind behind Secretary Spellings. His name is Charles Miller, and he chaired the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which issued its report in September, and on which Spellings is now acting. Miller is a Houston investment consultant, former Chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, and long-time enthusiast for standardized testing. In 2001, Miller helped to start the National Center for Educational Accountability. Miller also worked closely with Spellings on No Child Left Behind before he headed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. And he is back, serving on the steering committee that is advising Spellings on how to implement the Commission’s recommendations (see the list of members at the end of this article).

In other words, an ideology and an ideologist lie behind Spellings’s plan to radicalize outcomes assessment. Spellings’s bee comes ultimately from the same Texas hive that has put standardized testing at the core of K-12 education across the country.

Outcomes assessment and all that testing make a certain amount of sense for grade schools and high schools. But the problems facing higher education are different. We won’t cure a politicized curriculum, run-away expenses, academic over-specialization, intellectual banality, pandering to interest groups, and infringements on freedom of thought by imposing a Brobdingnagian-sized input-output blanket of tests.

I also worry about what will happen when a Democrat sits in the White House. Spellings is putting in place a system through which the secretary of Education can, by pulling the strings of accrediting agencies, set almost any standard he wants as an “outcome” of an American college education. What happens to America’s traditionalist colleges and universities when the Department of Education announces that, say, a thorough knowledge of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is now required? Secretary Spellings has said that she doesn’t favor “one-size fits-all approaches” or the same tests for all colleges. And that point was reemphasized by Hockfield Malandra (the University of Texas official who chaired the working group on accreditation) at last week’s summit. That’s good, but it seems to leave the door wide open to others with no such scruple.

And I suppose it also allows the question, “How many sizes?” Right now, American benefits from a huge variety of colleges and universities competing on the basis of very different ideas about what it means to be college educated. Spellings’s idea of federally mandated “outcomes assessment” inexorably points to a much higher degree of conformity.

Spellings has repeatedly said she wants to move quickly with her “action plan,” and last week’s meeting of 250 leaders doesn’t have the air of cautious deliberation. It seems more like a launching pad. What can be done to slow this rocket? Spellings has considerable freedom to rewrite the rules of accreditation, but if she goes too far, she is bound to raise suspicion in Congress over the prospect of another ambitious Cabinet member who is arrogating exceptional new powers for herself and her successors.

Spellings’s frustration with the complacency of higher education is palpable. Confronted with the proud mediocrity of the politically correct university, she wants to do something, and she knows her time is limited. A federal regime of outcomes assessment, however, is too much the cudgel and too little the landscape architect. The outcomes we should be worried about are not the scores on tests after four years of college study, but the lives of graduates fourteen or forty years later. Are we creating an educated citizenry, an imaginative and inventive workforce, men and women who prize their intellectual freedom and put it to good use? Those are outcomes worth pursuing, but Gradgrindian outcomes-assessment is hardly the way to get there.

While outcomes assessment is the Queen Bee Spellings attempt to reform higher education, I don’t want to lose sight of the rest of the swarm. Clearly we are at a moment when the settled relationship between the federal government and colleges and universities has become unsettled. On the whole, conservatives have paid little attention to the cultural and economic consequences of these impending changes.

Recommended

The Latest