U.S. Panel Weighs Accountability in Higher Education

By Alyson Klein — March 28, 2006 5 min read
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College presidents last week told a federal commission considering ways to bring more accountability to higher education that some measures for assessing a college’s effectiveness, including graduation rates and standardized tests, might present problems.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, established in September by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, is charged with examining how colleges and universities can better prepare students for the workforce and considering ways of increasing access to college. It held the latest in a nationwide series of public hearings here in Boston, an area known for its concentration of top universities, on March 20. The commission will deliver a report to Ms. Spellings by
Aug. 1.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings addresses the first meeting of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education last October, as panel Chairman Charles Miller listens.

The panel’s chairman, Charles Miller, said in an interview this month that he would like to see more emphasis on demonstrated student learning at the postsecondary level. He said the commission might include language in its report urging colleges to use standardized tests to measure students’ problem-solving, critical-thinking, written-communication, and other skills, in both their freshman and senior years.

Mr. Miller, who was not in Boston, is a Houston investor and a former chairman of the board of regents of the University of Texas system. As the chairman of the Texas Educational Economic Policy Center from 1989 to 1994, he helped design the state’s accountability system for K-12 schools, which later served as a model for the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The panel has attracted media attention for the idea that it is coalescing around a call for some specific, possibly federally mandated accountability measure for higher education. But Mr. Miller made it clear in the interview that he would not favor any commission recommendation for federal legislation requiring accountability tests.

“We’re going to make a statement that they need to do the measurement,” Mr. Miller said, referring to individual colleges. “We’re not mandating anything.”

He said that as tuition costs continue to climb, parents, students, and policymakers will want to get a clearer picture of what they are getting for their money.

Mr. Miller added that colleges should be open, though, to the idea of using some sort of standardized measure of student learning, since they rely heavily on the SAT, the ACT, the Graduate Record Examination, and similar exams in their admissions.

A Pilot Program?

Only five of the commission’s 19 members attended the Boston meeting. They were: James J. Duderstadt, a professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan; Nicholas M. Donofrio, the executive vice president for innovation and technology at IBM; Richard K. Vedder, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington; Charles M. Vest, the president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Charlene R. Nunley, the president of Montgomery College, a community college based in Rockville, Md.

The panel has spent the past five months conducting hearings around the country, including in Washington, Seattle, and Nashville, Tenn. In a speech at the Nashville meeting on Dec. 8, Mr. Miller said the panel would focus on accountability, affordability, quality, and access to higher education.

The Boston meeting gave presidents from some of this metropolitan area’s most prominent universities the chance to testify on those issues during a morning session. The afternoon session, which was open for comments from the general public, drew some 80 speakers, ranging from college presidents concerned with accreditation issues to students complaining about mounting college-loan debt.

Most presidents at the session here resisted the idea of a one-size-fits-all system for college accountability, saying it could hinder their missions.

“Standardized curricula or testing would limit our ability to educate, develop new curricula, and train the innovators our nation so desperately needs right now,” said Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

Although some critics have feared that the commission might call for withholding federal funding from institutions that choose not to test, one commission member, Mr. Vest, said he could not “imagine voting for such a recommendation.”

Ms. Nunley said after the hearing that the federal government might be better served setting up a pilot program to explore how accountability systems could be implemented at the college level.

Mr. Miller, when interviewed March 13, also floated the possibility of using graduation and retention rates as another yardstick for colleges’ effectiveness. He said that once colleges admit a student, they have a moral obligation to ensure that person graduates.

But at the Boston meeting, some college leaders warned that relying on such statistics could inhibit institutions that serve part-time students, midcareer professionals, and other nontraditional populations.

“I would consider it a damaging metric,” said Jack M. Wilson, the president of the University of Massachusetts system. He said while graduation rates might be an interesting statistic for the system’s flagship campus in Amherst, it would not make sense to use such data to measure the success of the system’s urban Boston campus, which has many older students who do not typically finish within two or four years.

Collaboration With K-12

Many of the college presidents seemed to agree, meanwhile, that their institutions should collaborate with K-12 schools to help them do a better job of preparing students for rigorous college courses, particularly in mathematics, science, and technology.

Worries about the United States’ ability to compete in the global marketplace have given new urgency to the issue of students’ readiness for college study and careers in such fields. (“Economic Trends Fuel Push to Retool Schooling,” March 22, 2006.)

“It is both in our national interest and our institutional self-interest that colleges and universities work with elementary and secondary schools to improve curricula and support professional development in mathematics and science,” said Dennis D. Berkey, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.

James W. Schmotter, the president of Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Conn., explained a partnership between his campus and its two main feeder high schools, which he said has resulted in a reduced need for remediation among entering students.

Students in those schools take the university’s math and English placement tests while they are in 11th grade. The college provides feedback on each student’s strengths and weaknesses. College and high school instructors then meet regularly to plan the senior-year curriculum.

A year before the program began, 62 percent of Western Connecticut State freshmen needed remedial math classes, Mr. Schmotter said, but that figure fell to 41 percent once the collaboration was in place. He told commissioners that the partnership could be implemented on a larger scale.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Panel Weighs Accountability in Higher Education


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