Colleges and the Three R's

The reforming notion of "accountability" has become both a buzzword and a buzz saw in education. President Bush was able to get a law passed in 2001 requiring standardized testing of public schoolchildren from K through 12. Now some in Congress want to rein in rising college tuitions by making sure federal dollars for higher education aren't wasted on students who don't learn much or just drop out.

The idea is being floated because Congress must reauthorize the 1965 Higher Education Act. And with soaring college tuitions, more and more parents are asking what their children are learning and how well they're learning it.

Disappointing graduation and retention rates, along with anecdotal complaints by employers that recent graduates lack fundamental skills, have also helped fuel a debate on higher ed.

Studies show that more than one-third of those who go to a four-year college did not graduate by age 30. Just 8 percent of low-income students graduate in a five-year time period.

One practical solution comes from Charles Miller, chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas. UT plans to pilot broad testing of its sophomores to make sure they're learning the core curriculum. Such testing will provide a broad picture of how well the university is teaching and will not be a graded test for students.

Though the details of the UT plan won't be released until this summer, the idea is to test students at the close of the sophomore year for their understanding of basic subjects such as reading, writing, math, and critical thinking. "We have to make this public information for parents and taxpayers," says Dr. Pedro Reyes, who's helping design the tests.

The UT plan might be a model for a simple, streamlined assessment that can augment the mishmash of accountability measures used in higher ed today. Parents and students could better compare colleges that offer such test information, along with affordability; acceptance, retention, and graduation rates; and postgraduation employment figures.

Congress, however, shouldn't quickly move to use federal funding of student loans, research, and other education programs to force colleges into conducting broad testing like the UT plan. Higher education in the US has thrived largely because of its independence.

Still, the pressure is on higher ed to make sure both government and parental dollars are well spent in truly educating young people.

Colleges and universities must find new ways to demonstrate their worth meaningfully so they, like their students, can be held accountable.

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