Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How much are college students learning?

By Ben Wildavsky
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT