Educational Assessment and the Crisis in Higher Education

Imagine an educational program that takes 4 or more years of full-time effort, costs four times the typical annual salary of its graduates, has a 44 percent dropout rate, and produces graduates who often lack the higher-order skills that are essential for organizational success. Would you sign up? Perhaps you already have, because in the U.S. we call this educational program 'college'.


As described above, this "college" thing does not sound very enticing. Who would say yes? Would you? But hold on. Before you say no to "college", you should consider the consequences of "non-college", and I’m sorry to say that for most people, the "non-college" option is even less promising. As unappealing as "college" is, it is better than being relegated to an economic underclass with prospects that grow bleaker and bleaker in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Put that way, the young potential scholar looks to be in a no-win situation. Both options sound terrible, but they will probably pick the "college" option because the return on investment is still pretty good. Then again, perhaps that’s better evidence of the ferociousness of the penalty for not going than it is a defense of the value that a college education provides. An individual might simply have to bite the bullet, sign up for "college", and hope for the best. As a society, though, we have to ask if we are satisfied with these choices. Is this really the best we can do? Don’t we have a moral duty to do better?

As one learns more about our educational system, outrage comes easily, but solutions are more elusive. In this space, trying to articulate every step of the path to educational utopia would be perhaps a little ambitious. However, there is room to describe some of the principles we should follow as we pursue that path. Can we agree on these?

1) Everyone counts. The above description of "college" may look bizarre to the most empowered among us, because it does not match their experience of college. For many attendees of the most selective institutions, there is no crisis. Sure, costs are up, but they are very likely to graduate and be able to pay back even the absurd loans they have taken out. But that is not the typical experience. If anything, our policies should be weighted towards the most vulnerable among us. While the average experience of a college student is a serious concern, we also need to be aware of predatory recruitment practices and sham diplomas.

2) There is no "free lunch" when it comes to education. Well, we might remember some sort of free lunches in our school cafeterias, but what I mean is that we can’t solve our problem by redefining terms or pushing the problem down the line. If we lower standards in high school we can produce more people with a diploma, but without real improvement those people will be no more successful in college and beyond. The employment market will adjust, the value of the diploma will decrease, and students will simply have to take a longer and more expensive path to prove their worthiness. It’s the same story with lowering college standards, except those graduates are now being forced into graduate degrees that often just prove that they have the skills that they should have needed to graduate from college.

3) Embrace educational measurement tools. This is going to be more controversial, but hear me out. In some circles, educational assessment is seen as a code word for dumbing down education and “teaching to the test.” That’s a real concern, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Any large-scale program designed to improve education will need some kind of evidence to demonstrate that it is working, and that evidence is going to come from educational assessments. Tests are imperfect, as everything is, but there’s a big difference between the good ones and the bad ones. A well-constructed test can be fair, clear, and measure relevant and meaningful skills. They can be a part of figuring out what works, so let’s make them as good as they can be. Rejecting assessment in education because you are not happy with the tests you have seen is like rejecting accounting in business because your last accountant stole your money.

We can do better in education, we can do better in educational assessment, and doing the former depends on doing the latter.