Monday, June 1, 2015

Do U.S. Colleges/Universities Need Standardized Testing?


This proposition is enough to cause legitimate students of higher education to pall or shudder, increase dental practices from grinding teeth, or evoke hate mail to its proponent.

Promptly, that is not being advocated by this post; but what is being suggested is that one can in frustration get to that extreme position simply by trying to scope the status and futures for America’s higher education complex.

In the last Edunationredux post the ending question was how the quality disparity among America's over five thousand post secondary institutions might impact the careers of their graduates.  On reflection, that was in part the wrong question:  Recognition prompted by a stirring speech; and realization that the prior point of view was likely disproportionately influenced by focusing on Ohio's extensive roster of many academically questionable satellite campuses.

The speech that gave pause was V. P. Joe Biden's recent commencement address at Yale, before his son Beau died from cancer.  His comment that impacted thinking was:

“My Yale Law School grad son graduated very well from Yale Law School.  My other son out of loyalty to his deceased mother decided to go to Syracuse Law School from Penn.  They’re a year and a day apart in their age.  The one who graduated from Yale had doors open to him, the lowest salary offered back in the early ‘90s was $50,000 more than a federal judge made.  My other son, it was a struggle — equally as bright, went on to be elected one of the youngest attorney generals in the history of the state of Delaware, the most popular public official in my state.  Big headline after the 2012 election, “Biden Most Popular Man in Delaware — Beau.

The conclusion, a large majority of our four-year institutions, and some unknown fraction of our two-year versions likely have less causal impact on their graduates’ successes than those graduates' personal aspirations, values, and determinants.  And most of those institutions, by virtue of how they are de facto networked on most things academic, subject to common professional media, and employ each others' products, represent comparable intellectual values and practices.  For these institutions the more relevant issue is their capacity to deliver that performance with future affordability and effectiveness.

For the rest of that institutional population, assessing and remedying academic quality deficits may still be a pressing national need.  That need may also be confounded with cost of delivery; the lower cost and/or greater convenience of these programs being hoisted as justification for lesser academic standards, or misconstruing training for education.  It is certainly complicated by the fundamental lack of comparable big data that clarify that segment's vision of their assignment, what they actually practice, and the specifics of who they employ to do it.  Pejorative, at times that appears deliberately employed to mislead or promote.

Today's post, going oblique from the original intent, addresses as a next issue the larger set of collegiate change needs.  A subsequent post will survey the still limited collegiate attempts to increase productivity of delivery of post secondary learning, to attempts at learning and academic management innovation, and by definition to moderating its student/parental costs.

Smoke clearing, the picture isn’t pretty

While the sound and fury has subsided a bit, over prior years’ public concerns with the inflation of collegiate tuition and related costs (ameliorated by an improved economy), the issues are not far below the surface.  Consider:

41% of students starting a four-year collegiate program still fail to graduate in six years.

60% of students entering a two-year postsecondary program still fail to finish in six years.

College student debt has now reached $1.3 trillion, on top of $150 billion in Federal aid to higher education.

Even while Mr. Obama was proposing to rate colleges and universities, penalizing those dodging tuition control, many of our institutions declared tuition increases.

Rating and ranking America’s colleges and universities has become a profit center for entities like US News, and lesser known firms that are pitching for a share of the potential college student’s search dollars.  The issue is that there is little overlap among the various ratings, offering the college wannabe even more confusion in their search.

The level of understanding of what our colleges and universities are actually doing and achieving has been carefully managed by their administrations to in some cases actually obscure, or less pejorative, make it difficult for the public to know what its inputs, outputs, processes, and costs really are.  One example, branch campuses of American colleges and universities are actually an unknown quantity, numbers ranging from roughly 500 to 650?  As most branch campuses may operate with a lower level of rigor then their base campuses, it matters.

Lastly, in an Ohio effort that beggars the imagination, its Department of Education proposes to turn primary and/or secondary teachers into college professors in a snake-bit program dubbed CC+, for college credit plus.  One of the proposals for accelerating degree accomplishment is that qualified grade 9-12 students be able to secure some postsecondary credit in parallel with high school completion; that is a legitimate argument and goal, even an imperative if times to degrees are to be shortened. However, having observed first hand the pedestrian course organization and syllabi of one of Ohio’s local branch campuses, and of a local high school business course the incompetent counterfeit of a legitimate beginning university course, the potential results here are really quite scary.

Simultaneously, there have been real efforts to cut higher education costs, and some creative proposals for restructuring US higher education.  In the former category, Purdue University has just frozen its tuition for the fourth straight year under Mitch Daniels’ leadership.  Indiana University’s Michael McRobbie and its Trustees have just announced that IU’s undergraduate in-state tuition will be frozen for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years.  There have been few replications of that wisdom across our over 3,000 four-year institutions.

Building on delusions

Understanding the difference between America’s public primary and secondary systems, versus our population of colleges and universities, is metaphorically like comparing a bicycle race to the Indy 500.  While there are standout US public school systems, the majority is still lodged in last century and dominated by educators that have not been equipped to deal with this century’s trajectories.  Even the organizational platforms are distinct, public schools by virtue of common state oversight, similar; our colleges and universities, the public versions increasingly disconnected from their state origins, have demonstrated the capacity to declare their independence.  Not quite the wild west, but that independence has created a pattern of higher education corporatization in decision style and spending.

In addition to the above, and in contrast with the grudging fights to privatize public K-12, for-profit postsecondary work has dominated institutional growth in this century.  While public postsecondary campuses have actually declined, from 1999-2000 to 2012-2013, four-year for-profit Title IV colleges have increased 259 percent; no, that’s not a typographical error.  An implication is that programs more narrowly focused on careers and even beginning job placement are superseding the traditional and defensible broader role of higher education.

Three major effects of current postsecondary growth patterns connote negatives for the US:  One, pragmatically, the evolving dumbing-down of higher education by a proliferation of diluted (Ohio’s CC+) and/or commercialized programs that lack the visibility and oversight of last century; two, the substitution of adjunct/contingent faculty for prior tenure-track faculty, now accounting for over two-thirds of four-year programs, and three-quarters of faculty teaching in two-year programs; and three, the lack of comparable data for what is actually occurring in our roughly five thousand postsecondary institutions.  

Arguments abound on item one; whether adjunct faculty, particularly ones with the educational background plus professional experience, may provide better classroom performance than faculty pursuing the multi-career demands in a research university?  Some may.  But the hard, depressing fact is we lack the basic information gathering about our postsecondary institutions that is not spun for their own strategies by the institutions, and that has been assembled with common canons for what is to be measured.  This is evident even in the popular alleged college ratings (with divergent and even contradictory assessments) of our institutions being marketed for profit to prospective students.  Without a reliable fact base for assessing US higher education, including core performance (completion rates that we label “dropout factories” in public K-12) and the qualities of its outputs, one gets a sense of the frustration that brought on public system “corporate reform.”  

The diversity of postsecondary institutions, and the likely diversity of the processes footing what is superficially promulgated, make the data chore even more complex than describing our more homogeneous public schools, and in spite of their level of magnitude greater numbers. But the single-minded and na├»ve invocation of “standardized testing” to intimidate our schools is not the mechanism for changing higher education, even if it wasn’t refuted by the diversity of subject matter and pedagogy required of higher education.

No first cause mysteries; many downstream

US postsecondary education need for assessment, and provisionally change, isn’t exactly news, kicking around the halls of academe for over a half century.  In the couple of decades period anchoring mid-20th century, it was about bringing knowledge and especially STEM up to date.  Toward the end of last century it became a race to build the collegiate infrastructure to accommodate soaring student enrollments.  At last century’s end the most visible dysfunctions were reductions in state support of their postsecondary institutions, with the not unexpected consequence that they started to escalate tuition and related pricing for students as offset.  Not as visible, our better colleges and universities gathered their wits, turned corporate, and started myriad programs to increase revenues.  What that corporatization created, however, was a “business” strategy that ramped up non-teaching human resources.  What it did not prompt were parallel programs to increase  instructional productivity and contain costs.

Much of this insight has been conveyed to our state legislatures, and testimony by two solid academics conveyed that in Ohio.  One source, the perhaps longest systematic critic of what was happening to US higher education, was Richard Vedder, originally an Ohio State faculty member, now Director of the Center for College Productivity and Affordability.  A second source from Ohio is Dr. John McNay, President of the Ohio Conference of the AAUP, who in March 2015 provided testimony before the Ohio Senate Finance Committee.  Embracing Dr. Vedder’s critiques and more, his testimony included the following, a pretty good summary of issues:

According to a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article, if tuition, fees, and room and board had kept pace with inflation, their cost today should be just under $9,000. Instead, the cost is just under $20,000. We agree that now is the time to take steps to reverse this unsustainable course.”

The numbers tell the story. Data from the Integrated Post-Secondary Data System (IPEDS) reveals that between FY 2002 and FY 2013, Ohio’s institutions spent, on average, 23.9% of their operating budgets on total instructional compensation (e.g. salaries and benefits). Over the 10-year period, total instructional compensation declined by 4.1%. In other words, our institutions spent less than a quarter of their budgets employing faculty, and the total amount spent employing faculty declined over that time frame.”

Administrative staff now outnumber full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty by a nearly two to one ratio. If you include all full-time faculty, the ratio is closer to one to one. To be clear, our institutions are employing as many administrative staffers as full-time faculty. Research has shown that the ideal faculty to administrator ratio is three to one. There is one administrator for every 14 students, representing an increase of 25% over the aforementioned 10-year period.”

The issues with these characterizations are, there is a major missing factor, and one size does not fit all.

Missing, the wide disparity in the level of education received from our best, versus that received from too many branch campuses and community colleges.  That in turn can trace to the education and quality of faculty available to locally based institutions, and the quality of leadership/administration.  But even this is further complicated.  

One, the missions of these diverse campuses are usually different, a broad core education (or deep specialization) in quality four-year programs, versus education bordering on training for locally sourced employment.  The latter can be rigorous as well, but the missions are different.  Two patterns, unfortunately illustrated by examples in Ohio, local college administrators are placed in those positions primarily to fatten their resume for a main campus assignment, or to pump up retirement payments, versus appointment to pursue the best mission.

Compounding, this disparity can be beyond data reach simply because we have failed for decades to properly gather and assess the data that can position our colleges, universities, and sundry campuses.  The US Department of education has failed that challenge even though it could be within its responsibilities, and most of our states lack the insights or education oversight to perform the task, or are politically motivated to duck the question.  Until there is a database that will permit multivariate characterization of higher education campuses and programs, and therefore a basis for assessment, the diversity is a shield for our institutions against being held accountable.

Lacking a sea change in how America’s colleges and universities are assessed, and some form of national consensus is formed, prediction is a no-brainer and the prospectus mixed:  The top ten percent or so of US postsecondary institutions – public as well as private – will continue to output graduates with a generally superior education, or deep expertise in discipline specialties, demanded for better jobs; the majority of public branch campuses will continue to struggle to match main campus performances, turning out either mediocre education or some mix of locally demanded training and patches of broader learning; and proliferating community colleges will continue to churn out mixed education/job-related training that may evolutionarily be replaced by emerging robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) based approaches.  

Emerging from retro political thinking, the myopic view that basic research should be put on the back-burner in favor of applied or job-related development (Scott Walker's folly) is potentially strategic disaster, as that miscue denies how America’s once technology leads were achieved.  That cascades down to education and further debases the higher education faculty roles and tenure, influencing substitution with adjunct faculty.  Political denial of Federal oversight of higher education, and variable but marginal state oversight virtually assure that  “what you sees is what you gets” for a foreseeable future.

Almost makes one susceptible to the arguments put forth by two researchers (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, 2010), of missing to spastic learning on our collegiate campuses, and the need for some comprehensive testing to enforce performance -- but only for a fraction of a second, mindful of the mess that NCLB, Obama/Duncan, our testing companies, and most states, et al., have made of public K-12 standardized testing as a reform strategy!

Next postsecondary topic

In spite of the above unknowns, there have been some brave attempts to propose and execute reforms that could lower the cost of higher education, to innovate with learning processes, to deal with campus strategic and operations issues, and to reconcile the many flavors of postsecondary offerings out there.  The next post will present some of these attempts to change college and university strategies and operations.

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