Standardized Tests in College?

Robyn Tellefsen | April 27, 2012

standardized tests at collegeAfter years of enduring standardized tests, from elementary school (it starts in 3rd grade in New York) all the way through high school and then college entrance exams, most students breathe a sigh of relief at the lack of standardized testing at the undergraduate level. Unless you’re going to grad school or entering a credentialed profession, your college admission is a chance to say goodbye to those dreaded, broad-stroke assessments.

Not so fast.

If you thought all those standardized tests were just a means of torturing you and comparing you to your peers, well, that’s only part of it. Test scores are also used to determine the quality of the public school you’re attending. As such, test scores can make or break a school, giving governing bodies reasons to close underperforming schools and empowering choosy parents with facts and figures to determine how well a school’s students are presumably performing.

When it comes to college, however, we have data about the scores required for entrance, letting us know how selective a school is, but no concrete data to reveal student outcomes. All that might be changing.

National assessments – yes, even standardized tests – are gaining traction at the college level, with more than 1,000 colleges using at least one of these methods, reports The New York Times. For example, since 2004, Texas has required its state colleges to administer standardized tests and make the outcomes public. It’s a move to increase transparency and give consumers a way to compare colleges more effectively.

The federal government has not yet mandated standardized testing for colleges, but the prospect is not far off.

It makes sense on some level – if you’re going to make such a hefty investment in a college education, you might want concrete evidence of a return on that investment, such as a significant increase in knowledge and skills. Simply put, you want the most bang for your buck.

Currently, the Voluntary System of Accountability, an alliance of more than 300 state colleges, has approved three competing standardized tests for colleges: the ETS Proficiency Profile; the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, produced by ACT; and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, from the Council for Aid to Education.

The goal of these collegiate assessments is not merely to measure performance, but improvement, especially in key areas like critical thinking and problem-solving.

However, selective colleges say it’s difficult for students to show marked improvement on standardized tests when they’re starting with high aptitude and critical thinking skills from the get-go.

And standardized tests are imperfect measurements in themselves, especially given that not all schools are reporting the data, nor are they using the same tests at the same time and in the same way.

If the higher-ups in higher ed ever do come to a consensus about how to measure learning at the college level, students could be looking at four more years of test prep and Scantron forms. Just what you always wanted.

–Robyn Tellefsen

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