Also promising is the movement toward "value-added" assessment, which attempts to measure what a particular college or university contributes to its students' knowledge and capabilities during their four or five years.
One interesting project recently launched by the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for education reform, compares the graduation rates of close to 1,500 colleges and universities. The comparison assumes that a school is adding considerable value if it graduates more of its students than would be expected given their high school records and socioeconomic background, and adding little if it admits a bumper crop of high-achieving kids and then graduates them at a below-average clip. It's not a perfect metric: accumulating credit hours and earning passing grades isn't equivalent to actual learning, and a school can easily improve its graduation rate by grading more generously. But comparing graduation rates with actual learning measures should prove interesting.
Two other value-added initiatives may soon be able to provide such measures. In the fall of 2006 the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, at Wabash College, plans to initiate a longitudinal study of 5,000 students at sixteen institutions. Researchers will use existing standardized tests along with in-depth interviews to examine the students' development of problem-solving abilities and their inclination to learn, cultural sensitivity, leadership, and moral character. They hope their findings will help reveal which teaching conditions are most conducive to learning and whether initiatives such as study abroad, service learning, and diversity programs are effective.
At the same time, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Project (of which I am a co-director) has created two types of tests that evaluate students' ability to articulate complex ideas, examine claims and evidence, support ideas with relevant reasons and examples, sustain a coherent discussion, and use standard written English.
The first, called a "performance task," provides students with a mini-library of diverse documents, such as letters, memos, summaries of research reports, newspaper articles, photographs, diagrams, tables, charts, and interview notes or transcripts. Students are asked to identify the strengths and limitations of alternative hypotheses, points of view, and courses of action. An example:
A catfish with a grotesque mutation is caught in Paradise Lake, the source for the local water supply. Local press coverage has the village buzzing. Mayor Carp has asked you and some others in your community to serve on a panel to investigate this matter. You are provided with the following documents:
*a newspaper article that contains a picture and description fothe fish and the opinion of a recognized expert as to its source
*an editorial by an environmental activist
*a radio interview with a biologist who teaches at a nearby college
*a State report with the results of water testing and other investigations regarding Paradise Lake
*a map of the area
*an article about similar fish "catches" from ECO, a journal focusing on issues of clean air and safe water
Using these data sources, pelase prepare a memo to the chair of the panel regarding (1) your analysis of the strength and limitations of various explanations for finding such a fish in Paradise Lake and (2) your recommendations regarding what should now be done about this situation and your reasons for these recommendations
All the tasks demand similar skills: students must weigh, organize, and synthesize evidence from different sources; distinguish rational from emotional arguments and fact from opinion; analyze data; deal with inadequate, ambiguous, or conflicting information; spot deception and holes in the arguments of others; recognize what information is or is not relevant to the task at hand; and identify additional information that might help to resolve issues.