College Rankings Don't Tell How Well Students Learn

Article excerpt

It's not hard to tell when it's college-rankings season. That's when high school seniors rush to the newsstands to check out the number next to their top pick. Parents buy extra copies of the listings. College presidents whose stars are up make demure statements, while their less fortunate counterparts issue pronouncements about "ludicrous" lists that are "bordering on fraud."

Money Magazine, Time, Newsweek, Mother Jones, and others offer rankings. But last week, the most watched of the bunch - U.S. News & World Report - weighed in (see list, right).

The magazine's annual ranking, which most colleges watch very closely, spurred the usual horse-race debate and invective over reducing a college to a number. But this year, more attention has been given to a key issue that U.S. News is unable to quantify: how well students learn at different schools.

For the first time, a critical mass of research is being devoted to determining how to measure what students learn as undergraduates.

If successful, those efforts could soon yield rankings based on the quality of undergraduate teaching, not just the number of books in the library or the size of the endowment.

Much of the frustration and recrimination over rankings is due to the fact that rankings like U.S. News only hint at what's inside, researchers say.

"Most people assume that if a young person goes to Harvard, Wellesley, or Swarthmore they will be better off than at a state public university," says Roger Benjamin, president of the Rand Council for Aid to Education in New York. "But what the institution adds to the individual student is never really answered. There's national movement on this subject to find out."

At least a half-dozen organizations are working on tools to assess the reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills of undergraduates in what they call an objectively quantifiable fashion. …