Student Learning: Higher Education's Missing Link in Quality Assurancet

Article excerpt

For a good part of its history, American higher education and its stakeholders have accepted two basic propositions about the measurement and assurance of quality: One is that price and prestige are highly correlated with quality; that is, the more expensive and selective the institution, the better its product must be. The other is a "trust the academy" approach to student learning: Grades and institutional reputation are sufficient warranties of graduates' preparation for the demands of citizenship and the workplace. These notions may not be acknowledged explicitly, but they are evidenced in the emphasis placed on U.S. News and World Report and similar rankings, and in the lack of comprehensive postsecondary learning assessment revealed by report cards such as the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's Measuring Up.

Several factors suggest that these propositions simply are not sustainable if the United States is serious about maintaining its competitiveness in the tightening worldwide race for human capital. In a knowledge-driven economy, accountability systems that emphasize higher education's means of production (e.g., admissions standards, sat/act scores, spending per student) rather than its product (e.g., educational outcomes) will boost neither the quality nor the quantity of the nation's human capital. In other words, gauging quality by measuring how many students cannot get into an institution rather than by how many fulfill educational goals (that is, by what they know and can do) is a formula for mediocrity in the global landscape.

In addition, a raft of recent data indicate that American higher education's product may not warrant the "best in the world" label that academics and policymakers have been so eager to claim: Consider the following:

* The most recent edition of the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) found that the quantitative literacy of college graduates fell from 1992 to 2003 and that document and prose literacy remained unchanged.

* A study by the American Institutes for Research found that one in five four-year college graduates lacked the analytical and computational skills to complete an office supply order or estimate the auto mileage remaining on a partial tank of gasoline. This proficiency gap is in evidence across institutional type and control.

* Recent employer surveys have found that a significant proportion of college graduates have insufficient skills in key areas - especially written and oral communication and reasoning/analysis - for workplace success.

The bottom line is that our higher education system values what it measures but is not measuring what it should value. …