Standardized tests could affect Alaska colleges

College students may soon have more to worry about than just the midterms and finals standing between them and their degrees.

Charles Miller, chairman of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, said he sees a growing consensus that the need for accountability on behalf of students, parents, taxpayers and employers calls for the implementation of standardized testing in colleges.

In a recent The New York Times article, Miller was quoted as saying that the main component would measure student learning to reverse current trends in academia.

A 2003 report by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that less than one-third of the college graduates it surveyed demonstrated the ability to read complex English texts and to draw complicated inferences.

The debate has been quietly brewing for decades, and it raises many questions about what exactly a college education entails, and how it should be measured.

Mary Snyder, dean of the College of Education at UAA, doesn’t agree with the proposed mantra that the alphabet is the answer, and thinks vital contributors are being looked over.

“I believe you can grade meat and eggs, but human beings are complex, and letter grades are virtually meaningless,” Snyder said. “Grades are not an effective means of assessing learning _” not for children, not for college students. What assessment should measure is progress, and if changes are to be effective, stakeholders need to be involved in determining (what) the outcomes should be, and adequate time and resources must be provided.”

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In addition to the proposed testing itself, some critics take issue with the costs associated with implementing the proposal. The federal government contributes one-third of the money needed by colleges to operate, according to the Department of Education Web site. The remaining funds come from grants, research and tuition. Thus, the question of who would foot the bill for standardized tests remains to be answered.

Callie Ashcraft, a sophomore majoring in medical technology, says she thinks she shouldn’t have to finance the tests.

“If the government wants this testing, and makes it mandatory, they’re the ones that should be paying for it, not us,” Ashcraft said.

In addition to questions regarding what exactly will be measured in the standardized tests, some critics wonder when they should be administered. Some say that this is nothing more than the government putting the No Child Left Behind Act into college.

Snyder said the numbers speak for themselves.

“A recent study projects that, using NCLB’s definition of ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ (AYP), by 2014, 96 percent of Illinois schools will fail to meet AYP,” Snyder said. “Within that same 8-year time period, at least 80 percent of schools in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota will not meet AYP. Does that sound like a plan that’s working? What do you think that means for Alaska’s schools, where 43 percent of the schools failed to meet AYP in 2005?

“In my opinion, the one thing No Child Left Behind has confirmed is that increased testing does not equal improved learning,” Snyder said.

Some students are not impressed with the standardized testing proposal, and many say that it would not benefit them. They say the main purpose of college is to gain a better understanding of the world, not proficiency in rote memorization.

Adrian Lecornu, a philosophy major at UAA, says there is more to college learning than just tests.

“College should teach individuals to think critically about their field, as well as how to apply that knowledge and not just to regurgitate facts and figures,” Lecornu said. “If (the testing) happens, teaching to the test will follow.”

Snyder says both math and science are definitely fields that need reinforcing, but to claim grade inflation in the social sciences is an untrue and convenient excuse, not the answer that is needed.

“And in the meantime, our children suffer because music, art, physical education, drama, critical thinking, experiential learning, and other things that matter in the development of the whole child have been eliminated,” Snyder said. “Albert Einstein said ‘Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.’ We need to remember that in this era of metric madness.”