The accountability movement has arrived in higher education.
Hundreds of colleges are testing freshmen and seniors to measure learning from enrollment to graduation. More than 100 schools have voluntarily published results from new learning assessments, offering parents, prospective students and government regulators a gauge of the value colleges add to the acquisition of knowledge and critical thinking skills.
An article in Thursday's Washington Post recounted the experience of the University of Texas with the Collegiate Learning Assessment over the past eight years. UT students score well on the test, but seniors don't perform much better than freshmen. University leaders have used the findings and other research data to drive improvements in classroom teaching.
The University of Texas system is one of a few higher-education entities that require member institutions to give such tests. Other colleges that give the CLA and two similar tests, the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency and Proficiency Profile, do so on a mostly voluntary basis. Results are not generally made public.
The assessment movement began as a means for institutions to measure the critical thinking and communication skills of their students, as a purely internal exercise.
But the conversation shifted dramatically last year, when sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa used CLA results to critique American higher education. After giving the test at 24 public and private colleges, they concluded that only 36 percent of students showed significant learning gains between freshman and senior years.
College leaders are divided on the merits of the assessments.
"I thought it was a revelation," said Jeff Abernathy, president of Alma College, a liberal arts school in Michigan. "It's hard data about student learning across all the disciplines of higher education."
Several years ago, the Council of Independent Colleges organized a consortium of private schools to administer the CLA and share findings. At its peak, 57 institutions participated, said Richard Ekman, the council's president. But the initiative is now concluded.
Few private colleges have revealed their assessment results to the public. But 144 public universities have posted scores on a site called College Portraits under the Voluntary System of Accountability, launched in 2007 by two public university associations.
The College Portraits site has its flaws. Most colleges offer only minimal performance data, with little context on what the scores mean.