Sunday, April 09, 2006

Standardized Testing in Colleges

An idea being promoted by the Bush administration involves standardized testing in college, as a way of holding colleges accountable for the high costs being placed on students and their families. This follows in line with the battery of testing now taking place in elementary school through high school via No Child Left Behind; in their eyes, testing is the fix for all of education's ills.

Testing in college is, in my opinion, simply a bad idea. To get into middle and top tier institutions and programs requires, in part, testing. Obviously, the SAT I and ACT exams are important pieces of a portfolio one must send in during the application process. Some argue that we should end things like affirmative action and stick to a strict level of accountability by holding the line on test score levels, so if you do not meet the cutoff score which is part of the admissions criteria, then you need to look elsewhere...end of story. We can talk about that the day things like legacy admissions no longer exist (our president, by his own admission, was not qualified to go to a place like Yale based on entrance criteria, and yet he was accepted because of his family...why does he have a problem with affirmative action programs?). I don't see this happening any time soon.

As we skip ahead to those students who want to go to graduate school, law school, or medical school, another layer of testing already exists through the GRE, LSAT, and MCAT exams. This leaves those who are going to graduate with either an associates or bachelors degree, and then enter the job market. Why is there a need for testing? If a student has worked hard, learned, and built up the skills necessary to have the potential to make contributions to a particular field or job, he or she will be hired. If a person does not have the skills, abilities, or has put in the work to do well in college, it is likely that person will not find a job, at least not in that particular area/field. Doesn't 'the market' already determine what a successful student is upon graduation? It amuses me when those who feel free markets are the cure-all for the world's economic, political and social problems, believe college-level testing is necessary.

Rather than adding another layer of testing and bureaucracy, colleges should maintain high academic standards in their programs. We all know there are 'weed-out' courses in every major, which help students determine if a particular area of study is really where they should be. If professors maintain the rigor and high academic standards that are relevant for a field of study, and issue grades according to how well a student has mastered the material and has demonstrated the ability and talent necessary to stay within that major (this may be an area colleges should take a second look at), what will some new test accomplish?

It is also difficult for me, at least, to imagine what such a test will be like in the first place. There are many dozens of majors students move into in college, and after the freshman or sophomore year of common courses, the material and types of talents and abilities diverge rapidly from major to major, and specialization becomes most important. The ultimate test for competency and ability already exists: do you have what it takes to find a job and make a career built around that college experience? Let 'the market' determine the answer to the question.

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