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Texans and Their Tests

February 2, 2007

When the Education Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education started meeting, many professors and college leaders feared it would push for some sort of mandatory standardized testing of graduating college seniors -- a prospect they saw as inconsistent with the values of liberal education. In the end, the Spellings Commission didn't make such a recommendation. But in Texas -- home to the education secretary and the panel's chair -- mandatory standardized testing for graduating seniors may now be on the way.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, on Thursday proposed a major expansion of state support for public higher education and for student aid. He also proposed one of the broadest testing requirements for graduating college students to date. Seniors would be required to take either licensure exams in their fields or Education Testing Service exams for various college majors. While students would not be required to pass the exams to graduate, colleges' state funds would be linked to students' scores, so institutions where many students did well on the standardized exams would get more money.

Perry says that the exit exams are needed "to protect integrity" in higher education and the tax support going to colleges. Many higher education leaders in the state are thrilled with the attention he's paying to their institutions, and his willingness to provide real increases in financial support.

But faculty groups and advocates for Latino students are concerned about the testing requirement. Many fear that the exams will encourage a "teaching to the test" approach that's not appropriate in higher education, that colleges will have incentives to place more emphasis in admissions on standardized tests, and that the new system will encourage uniformity and discourage creativity in undergraduate education.

Other critics said that the system was set up in a way that would reward places like the University of Texas at Austin -- where graduates are likely to perform well on standardized tests. As a result, these critics fear, money will flow to the wealthiest universities and not to the institutions in south Texas that serve Latino students who are less likely to have attended competitive high schools.

"I'd give a flunking grade to the testing proposal," said Charles Zucker, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association. "There is now a widespread consensus in Texas that all of the K-12 standardized testing that we have done has not really worked. We've had massive amounts of teaching to the test going on, and now that there's a consensus that that has failed, the governor wants to institute the same plan for higher education."

Many details of the testing plan are unclear. ETS, which stands to gain a lot of business, was unaware that the governor had proposed using its testing system until called for this article (although officials acknowledged that it was possible that someone at ETS was aware or had briefed Texas officials).

The Major Field Tests that Texas plans to use are currently offered for 15 undergraduate majors and also for M.B.A. programs. All of the tests are multiple choice and they are purchased by the institution giving them (at a rate of $25 per student), which in turn can schedule administration of the tests when it wishes. ETS officials said that one of the purposes of the test was to help with accountability and that, to date, no statewide initiative was in use on par with what Perry is proposing.

A spokesman for Perry said that the tests would give parents and students "a simple and understandable way to compare the quality of degree programs offered at different schools, and academic departments would be able to better assess and refine curricula."

Bill Wynne, a solutions implementation specialist at ETS, said that the tests were developed based on surveys of experts in the field about what items are important. Compared to the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a tool many colleges are embracing in response to accountability pressures, the major tests "are more discipline-specific," Wynne said. Sample questions on the history test touch on the Black Death, Hegel, colonialism, Confucianism, ancient Rome and the civil rights movement.

As to the format of the tests, which do not feature writing, he said that psychometricians have determined "that to measure knowledge, multiple choice is the best way to go."

While Wynne said he was surprised by the news about Texas on Thursday, he said he expected to see the test adopted soon in other broad programs like the one Perry proposed. "I think you are going to see these accountability initiatives coming out of the Margaret Spellings initiative," he said.

Raymund Paredes, commissioner of higher education in Texas, said he viewed the governor's plan as a "broad outline" that would be refined in the weeks ahead. He said that standardized testing "is needed to guard against grade inflation or other ways of getting artificial results," but he also acknowledged the "tremendous variability across institutions and across disciplines."

For starters, there are plenty of majors that don't lead to licensure exams and that ETS doesn't include in its major tests. ETS tests history but not philosophy, music but not art, sociology but not anthropology, and literature in English but not literature in other languages. Paredes said that other tests would need to be identified, or perhaps students might take other admissions tests, such as the Graduate Record Exam or the Law School Admission Test.

Paredes acknowledged that those tests were not comparable to the major tests endorsed by the governor, but Perry's spokesman said that the coordinating board would be given some flexibility to come up with tests that aren't provided in the ETS program. Paredes said that details would be worked out in discussions with campus leaders, legislators and the governor.

Paredes said that he realized that some academics distrust standardized testing, but he said that it was essential to "confirm that the students who have graduated have actually acquired the necessary knowledge and skills." He added: "My concern is not over-testing, but how do you develop effective measurements of learning outcomes?" He said that academic programs need "to have a certain integrity, and you have to have minimal standards." Asked if many Texas programs lacked such standards, he said: "It's not clear by and large anywhere. We haven't had measurable learning outcomes."

Critics of testing said that the governor's plan would create the wrong incentives for Texas colleges. "Under Governor Perry's misguided proposal, an easy way for a Texas institution to ensure that it will get a high rating accompanied by monetary awards is to limit admission to students who already score high on the standardized tests that will be used to determine the cash bonuses," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. "Alternatively, they can narrow their curriculum to test preparation for the exit exam. In either case, test scores may soar but educational quality will be undermined -- the end result will be another phony 'Texas miracle.' "

He added that the proposal was "not surprising given the test-fixated Texas dominance of the U.S. Department of Education and, especially, its commission on higher education led by Charles Miller. All are true believers in the notion that more tests magically lead to more learning, despite mounds of data to the contrary."

David Hinojosa, a lawyer on education issues for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that he was very pleased to see the governor propose large increases in higher education budgets, but very concerned about linking new money to standardized testing. Not only will the beneficiaries probably be the research universities that tend to be the wealthiest institutions already, but the institutions that stand to gain the least are those that educate large numbers of students who graduated from poor high schools and who "perhaps by some coincidence educate a substantially higher number of minority students."

MALDEF and other groups have been involved in a sustained effort over the last 20 years to help colleges in predominantly Latino south Texas gain more programs and more funds -- and the institutions in that region have experienced significant growth as a result. "There doesn't seem to have been any study on the effects that this testing would have with the universities that serve south Texas and all along the border," Hinojosa said. "After years of having to fight for funding of those programs, we remain quite fearful that there will be a reversal of the dollars."

Zucker, of the Texas Faculty Association, said that his members were just starting to study the governor's plan, and that they appreciated Perry putting higher education "on the front burner."

But he said that multiple parts of the plan create problems for professors. One part would award some funds based on graduation rates. While Zucker said that professors want to help students graduate on time, he also said that many students lack sufficient preparation to do well -- and take a long time to graduate for all kinds of reasons, many of them valid. "If you are trying to maintain academic standards, how do you do that when a college's funding depends on head count for graduation? It doesn't take much of an imagination to see a dean calling in professors -- many of them adjuncts -- and telling them to start passing a lot more students."

And Zucker said that the testing proposal would lead to "a cookie-cutter approach" to higher education. "One of the great wonders of higher education is the unique perspectives and approaches professors bring to classes," he said. They won't be able to do so if they are facing pressure "to just teach students so they get a high score on an exit exam."

Zucker acknowledged that colleges need to think hard about how to "bring everyone up to a certain level," but he said that when you focus on standardized tests, you end up with minimal standards. "You can teach to the test and have everyone have minimal standards, but what do you give up to get that?"

 

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