No College Left Behind

Everyone wants accountability in higher education: You do; I do; so does the guy next door. After all, students, parents, and taxpayers are investing lots of money in higher education and they want a return. We all agree on that. But please: Let’s get it right this time!

The last time there was a big push for accountability, it brought us a nightmare—one that has persisted through Republican and Democratic administrations alike. “No Child Left Behind” has been an abysmal failure, and only a blind person could fail to see that it is the Act and those enforcing it, not the schools and kids, who deserves a big F.

The Department of Education has been granting waivers left and right because — even with more than sporadic dumbing-down of the tests and faking of the data — states can’t meet the NCLB goals. The law has led to thousands of schools investing untold hours in test-preparation exercises. Instead of educating children, many public schools are preparing students for tests that, at best, yield weak measures of narrowly conceived achievements. In the meantime, schools have abandoned music, art, physical education, and even cut back on science and social studies when those subjects are not on their state’s tests. And teaching kids to think creatively, wisely, or ethically has become a big no-no because — you guessed it — they’re not on the tests.

One student survivor of this system put his finger on the problem when he saw how unprepared he was for university-level inquiry and analysis at Georgetown. As he reported in a recent article in this newspaper, he had learned how to “memorize and regurgitate information” for the tests he was given in school. But he had never learned how to “form original, concise thoughts…[and] to focus less on remembering every piece of information, word for word, and more on forming independent ideas.”

NCLB certainly did focus attention on serious underachievement, especially for students in schools with the fewest resources. Its overemphasis on narrow standardized tests, however, has proved a disaster for K-12 education. We must not make the same mistake in higher education. Imagine how much worse these kinds of tests would be in measuring the achievement of college students who major in many different fields, set diverse career goals and need a broad array of adaptive skill sets. My own research on “successful intelligence” and others’ research on “emotional intelligence” show clearly that post-college success depends on much more than the general knowledge and narrow analytical thinking currently measured by standardized tests.

Yet the drumbeat is on to make the same blunder in higher education that we have made in K-12 public education. Testing enthusiasts want wider use of available standardized tests like those featured in the recent book, Academically Adrift, or closely related standardized tests produced by ETS and ACT. That would be a mistake. All these kinds of tests measure general knowledge and analytical thinking — necessary but far from sufficient for students’ long-term success. These measures do not address what students can do with their majors. They do not assess creative, practical, wise, or ethical thinking; nor do they measure emotional or social intelligence, self-regulation, perseverance, responsibility, resilience in the face of obstacles, or overall intellectual maturity. They tell us little, in short, about students’ real preparation for success.

The truth is that there will never be one perfect test that represents the Holy Grail for assessment. Treating any one higher education measure in the way some colleges mistakenly treat the ACT or SAT — as an all-encompassing measure of students’ educational or cognitive skills — would be a disastrous mistake. It would narrow college learning just when global challenges require a broader portfolio of learning than ever before.

If we want accountability, we can achieve it without resorting to fantasies of a single Holy-Grail assessment. First, we can make sure our students go to accredited institutions. Second, we can ensure that the accreditation process is serious, rigorous, attentive to broad learning outcomes, and free of political influence. Third, we can have students complete capstone courses requiring them to integrate and apply their learning. Fourth, we can ask students to engage independent research projects that delve deeply into a topic of the student’s interest. Finally we can ask students to compile expansive, integrative, and reflective portfolios of their best work, both within the classroom and outside it. Tools now exist for scoring such portfolios in meaningful ways that address broad and cross-disciplinary rather than narrow learning. Indeed, some colleges are combining such portfolios with standardized tests, recognizing that no one assessment can tell us all we want to know.

If you want to search for a Holy Grail, see a Monty Python movie. Don’t look for it in standardized tests. Let’s seek accountability, but this time, let’s do it right. Our last attempt at the Holy Grail, “No Child Left Behind,” may get an A for effort, but it gets an F for its outcomes.

Robert J. Sternberg, provost and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University.


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