C&B Notes

Kalamazoo Crosses the Rubicon

In an effort to improve its attractiveness against both larger state schools and more prestigious smaller colleges, Kalamazoo College (among a handful of others) began publishing test results purporting to demonstrate what its graduates had learned during their time in school. The long range implications of this could be a Pandora’s Box that many colleges wished that they had never opened.  Ultimately, the importance of a college degree may diminish to what it represented 100 years ago.  Students will learn from a blend of free online media, books, paid online media, and some on-campus classroom activity.  Instead of a degree, competency tests like AP exams, bar exams, CFA certification, etc. could become the standard that employers use to gauge ability and education.

Four years ago, Kalamazoo College faced a shrinking number of Michigan high-school graduates, declining applications and an endowment getting hammered by the recession.  Then the small, picturesque liberal-arts school decided on a bold step.  It started publicizing test results showing what its students had learned in their four years — a surprisingly rare strategy in a higher-education industry that usually prefers to keep such things private.  Parents of prospective students “come here and they want to know, ‘What are we getting for our money?’ ” said Eric Staab, Kalamazoo’s dean of admissions, who credits the change with helping the school weather the recession in relatively good shape.  “This gave us some data to stand on.”

Evaluating schools and teachers based on test scores has become a battleground in efforts to revamp K-12 education.  But the nation’s colleges and universities have long bristled at efforts to use similar metrics to scrutinize how well they teach students.  Schools have resisted the Obama administration’s call for a national college-rating system that could tie federal grants and loans to student performance during and after college.  Any national system would likely include metrics like graduation rates and student-loan default rates.  If assessments of what students learn are included at all, they would almost certainly be voluntary, an administration official said.

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In 2006, then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued a report that called for the federal government to demand more accountability and transparency from higher education.  Several initiatives were started to measure students’ academic progress so schools could be compared against each other, but those efforts have tapered off.  It isn’t that schools don’t have data on the matter.  A survey of 1,202 two- and four-year schools published in January by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment found that while 85% of schools have some sort of learning assessment, less than 10% make them publicly available.  Even fewer are standardized, so they can’t be used to compare one institution with another, said Natasha Jankowski, a co-author of the report.  “We’re in the business of teaching and learning, but how well we are really helping to prepare students isn’t something that we have been very open about,” Ms. Jankowski said.

The more selective schools are the least likely to share their assessments, the survey found.  “Elite institutions have everything to lose and very little to gain,” said Charles Blaich, a professor at Wabash College who helps assess student learning at colleges around the country.  “A lot of schools are scared because they don’t know how they are going to be measured.

Kalamazoo’s change of heart came about unexpectedly.  In 2005, along with 29 other schools, it took part in a longitudinal study that gave freshmen a test to measure their problem solving, reasoning and critical thinking.  The same test was administered to them as seniors.  Kalamazoo students did well on the test both as freshmen and seniors, but most importantly, the amount they improved over time was at or above the 95th percentile in each category.  Subsequent test results were similar.