Testing urge emerges in higher education

Many top schools have a reputation for tough final exams. But few have what tiny Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., does: a final exam that covers all four years of learning. Seniors pass it - or they don't graduate.

It's another level of test tension entirely. Just ask Eric Napier.

With a double major in computer science and business, Mr. Napier took two "comprehensive examinations" this spring, only days apart - one for each major. Each included a multihour written test and faculty-panel grilling. The panel even dredged up problems from his freshman calculus class.

"It's very high pressure," he says. "Unless you're an air-traffic controller, you'll probably never have to face anything like it again in your life." Mr. Napier passed. But two of his buddies at Millsaps did not.

Such end-of-school exit tests measuring whether students knew their stuff were common in the 1950s. As the curriculum broadened, tests fell by the wayside. Today, only Millsaps and perhaps 30 to 40 other colleges in the United States have high-stakes undergraduate exit exams.

While those comprehensive exams hardly seem poised for a big comeback, the idea of assessing the quality of a college or university education by testing students has picked up steam in the past decade, and could see a surge in the new millennium.

"The past two years has seen a significant increase in the number of states seriously considering - or actively piloting - standardized testing as a deliberate element of higher education policy," says a draft report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), a think tank in Boulder, Colo.

Critics say that using standardized tests as a measure is inappropriate when so much of the education in college focuses on critical thinking, creativity, and individual paths of study. Others point to the fact that many of the tests given students are not linked to graduation, calling into question their usefulness.

The pendulum swing back toward "accountability" has come mainly among state legislators dealing with tight budgets.

In the 1990s, soaring college costs and employers' gripes about a lack of basic writing, math, and other skills among graduates weighed on the minds of legislators. The result: testing of undergraduates on general education and major fields of study became public policy in eight states. Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, South Dakota, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Georgia all have laws on the books. And Utah, Colorado, and New York are experimenting with or actively considering such regimes, says Peter Ewell, author of the NCHEMS report.

Two states, Tennessee and Missouri, have taken the idea furthest, Mr. Ewell and others say. In the "show me" state, university testing has been linked with state funding incentives. The amount a school receives is pegged to how many graduates it tests for general-education skills.

As a result, since 1994, Missouri has doled out $48.6 million in new funding to its 10 public four-year institutions, state officials say. Meanwhile, the percentage of baccalaureate recipients taking a nationally recognized test rose to 80 percent last year from 64 percent in 1993. A similar rise occurred among students tested on their majors, too.

Now the focus is shifting from quantity to quality, says Robert Stein, associate commissioner for academic affairs with the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education. "We're now moving to rewarding institutions on performance."

Unlike Millsaps, a private liberal-arts college, the tests in Missouri are not "high stakes," says one official, which has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, Missouri universities know more about the strengths and weaknesses of their curriculum, based on the test scores, than they ever have. On the other, students don't have a huge incentive to try as hard because the tests "don't count" - thus casting doubt on the accuracy of the measure.

Despite such drawbacks, some Missouri institutions are enthusiastic. Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., was first in the state to use standardized tests to weigh student performance, and thereby the school's overall institutional performance. The intent is to spark faculty discussion and improve curriculum and teaching. Students are evaluated with regular final exams and other measures like portfolios; they are not penalized for low standardized-test results.

Not all Truman students are wild about the standardized testing, though most arrive well aware of the school's testing mandate and take it in stride.

"It's really not that bad - only about 16 hours out of our four years," says Jessica Neighbors, a recent graduate. "Truman has a reputation of being accountable. So students can say to an employer that they went to a university where they cared about student success."

Jack Magruder, Truman's president, says a degree from Truman is something special, in part because of its rigorous testing regimen. "We want to make sure our graduates have the background and skills to make sure they're exemplary in their field," he says. "The tests aren't punitive - they are used as indicators of student competence and to give the institution feedback on how well we're doing."

Testing, he and others contend, promotes constant discussion among faculty about how to improve teaching. But many disagree.

"We're skeptical about testing general education," says Ernst Benjamin, an official with the American Association of University Professors in Washington. "It's such a broad, diverse, and varied experience - and that's part of what's so intellectually exciting. If you design a test for it, it either becomes a glorified IQ test or else you turn general education into specialized education of one sort or another."

Such opposition is not to be taken lightly. Testing regimes are complex and costly. Without cultivating support among faculty, administrators, legislators, the public, and students, the whole thing can come crashing down. South Dakota dumped its program in 1989, but introduced a new one two years ago. New Jersey abandoned its program in 1991.

Still, testing beckons legislators trying to quell public ire over college costs. And among "underdog" institutions hoping to set themselves apart, there will be a continued drift in this direction, Ewell says.

Millsaps touts its bachelor of arts as a "degree with integrity," in part because it's backed by the big test. "My sense is that private colleges like ours need to demonstrate that they're worth the price," says Richard Smith, Millsaps vice president for academic affairs. "We need to show that we do what we do and do it better."

* E-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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