Standardized Assessments of College Learning

Past and Future
Policy Paper
March 22, 2016

In a time of growing public anxiety about higher education prices and student debt, colleges and universities are facing unprecedented pressure to show results. In response major testing companies are offering a solution: A new generation of standardized assessments designed to measure the critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communication skills that graduates need to prosper.

In a new report released with New America’s Higher Education Program, “Standardized Assessments of College Learning: Past and Future,” Fredrik deBoer, a scholar and lecturer at Purdue University, looks at current research regarding assessment policies and outcomes — while making recommendations for developing future assessment for American higher education.

“Effective assessment of student learning in any context represents a significant challenge, and controversies persist at all levels of education about which methods of data collection and analysis are most effective and appropriate,” writes deBoer. “Some fear that the creation of a widespread testing system at the college level will lead to teaching to the test and invite test fraud.”

deBoer makes the following recommendations for the next stage of higher education assessment development:

  • Standardized tests of collegiate learning must be subject to external validation. This would allow researchers to determine how well the tests work and what potential unforeseen consequences may arise.
  • Faculty and local administration must be welcomed into the assessment process, with this they are far more likely to see themselves as partners rather than as targets. Control of disciplinary assessments is a place where faculty can be brought into the assessment picture.
  • Assessment of college learning should take advantage of the power of representative sampling and inferential statistics. DeBoer states that there is no need to test all students, all of the time. Taking samples that adequately reflect the various forms of diversity on a campus can be responsibly used to draw inferences about the campus population as a whole.
  • Standardized assessments and localized disciplinary assessments should be used in concert with student outcomes data to better understand both individual colleges and the system as a whole. This outcomes data would include financial and life-satisfaction figures from college graduates — to give a better understanding if college is actually improving long-term life outcomes for our graduates.
  • Assessments cannot be no stakes, but neither should they be high stakes. It must be used to actually improve our institutions; it can be a guide for administrative practices and help identify strengths and weaknesses in regards to areas where students are seeing unequal outcomes.

deBoer says we have evidence to believe that the current higher education system is succeeding in many of its core functions, any attempts to revamp assessment should seek to cause minimal harm. He points out that the conversation surrounding educational assessment is often political, with some concerned about the profit motive. He concludes, “With open dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding, fair and effective assessment of college learning is possible.”

The full report can be found here.