Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How much are college students learning?

By Ben Wildavsky
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Students walk on the campus of University of California, Los Angeles.
Students walk on the campus of University of California, Los Angeles.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Wildavsky: You can find lots of information on U.S. schoolchildren's performance
  • But no tests exist to find out how students are doing in higher education, he says
  • Wildavsky: We need evidence to be able to see how reforms affect learning at college
  • It also would be helpful to find out how undergrads stack up academically, he says

Editor's note: Ben Wildavsky is director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York, and policy professor at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- If you want to know how U.S. schoolchildren are performing, you don't have to look far: A wealth of information is available, thanks to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Go online and see, for instance, that Massachusetts children outperform those in Texas, that average math scores have gone up nationally over the past 20 years and that the District of Columbia was the only urban district to improve in math and reading in grades 4 and 8 last year.

But what if you want to know how much students are learning in college? Here, the trail grows cold.

The Obama administration's proposed college ratings would measure access, affordability and outcomes such as graduation rates -- all of which are well worth tracking. But there's no proposal to find a way to measure student learning.

Ben Wildavsky
Ben Wildavsky

This failure to examine systematically what is, after all, the core mission of colleges is a big problem for U.S. higher education. We're awash in efforts to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of our colleges. But without a better base of comparative evidence, we won't really know how these reforms affect learning.

That's why it's time for NAEP to go to college.

Tests of what college students know are nothing new, of course, within individual classrooms and institutions. Comparative, standardized measures are rarer, though -- and much more controversial among college leaders.

There's the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA+, which examines critical thinking, reading and writing skills and is administered to small samples of undergraduates at about 200 colleges each year. But many wary administrators contend the CLA should be used for self-assessment and career placement rather than college-to-college comparisons. And some won't make their data public. That may be no surprise: a 2011 book drawing on CLA data found dismayingly low levels of student learning across the nation.

Gov. Walker: No diploma? No problem
Hypocritical not to pay college athletes?

It's the same with the National Survey of Student Engagement. A growing number of colleges use this survey, which doesn't measure learning directly but asks students about things such as how often they write long papers or talk with professors outside class. However, many still don't release the results off-campus, preferring to use them for internal improvement.

An intriguing new initiative led by Massachusetts will compare student learning across nine states by evaluating work such as student papers and lab reports. But because it will consciously avoid standardized tests, its ability to make credible cross-state comparisons may be limited.

The enormous advantages of an integrated, independent national test are clear. Like the NAEP used in elementary and secondary schools, a college NAEP could be administered to representative samples of students around the country. It would provide broad national and state-level results, including a breakdown of learning outcomes by race and socioeconomic status, and trends over time. It wouldn't assess individual colleges, which should alleviate the (overblown) anxieties of educators worried about curriculum-narrowing or one-size-fits-all rankings.

Still, the idea has long been contentious. It last received serious consideration more than 20 years ago, when the National Education Goals Panel recommended a voluntary national assessment to gauge the number of college graduates with advanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But higher education groups torpedoed the proposal. They argued, among other things, that a single measure would be unfair to institutions with large proportions of disadvantaged students, including community colleges.

Today, a collegiate NAEP would undoubtedly face similar objections. In fact, even as an idea, it already has -- in rather dramatic terms.

Clifford Adelman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, contended recently that the "shadow of a government test," taken by very different kinds of students, studying a variety of subjects at a wide range of institutions, "is enough to freeze the soul, let alone elementary statistical sanity."

But objections based on the diverse nature of American higher ed don't carry a lot of weight when lobbed at a sample-based test of vital academic skills that any student should be learning at any college.

Indeed, testing expert Gary Phillips of the American Institutes of Research, who once ran NAEP, has sketched a persuasive vision of a new experimental test that could make cross-state comparisons and also provide achievement data for different groups of institutions, from community colleges and liberal arts schools to Ivy League universities.

The next time a state boasts about the prowess of its universities, wouldn't it be nice to have an objective yardstick -- a reality-check that shows how those undergrads stack up academically against their peers in the rest of the country?

It's an appealing prospect. Why not give it a try?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT