WASHINGTON -- Nearly two years after the Bush administration said it would not participate in an international experiment aimed at developing a global assessment of student learning, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development on Wednesday formally announced the launch of the effort -- with the full participation of the United States and the Obama administration.
The Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) project aims to gauge whether it is possible to develop "reliable and useful comparisons of learning outcomes" that are valid across countries with different cultures and languages, said Richard Yelland, who heads the Education Management and Infrastructure Division at the OECD. The experiment will focus on producing three separate measures: one designed to measure general skills, and two in disciplines, economics and engineering.
The Australian Council for Educational Research will lead a consortium that will develop the discipline-specific tests. The general skills exam, meanwhile, will be developed by the Council for Aid to Education, to which OECD will pay $1.2 million to develop an international version of its Collegiate Learning Assessment, which has gained many institutional clients -- and its fair share of critics -- in the United States, where it has been framed as a tool for measuring the educational value that institutions add for their students.
OECD ultimately hopes to add a "value added strand" to its international assessments, but that will happen, Yelland told an audience at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's international forum here Wednesday, only if the organization's research study concludes that it is possible to develop a single assessment that can cross the major divides presented by language, culture and country.
If you can prove that you can develop a tool to measure learning across cultures, "you should be able to run the test at two different times" to calculate "value added," Yelland said. "That's why we’re concentrating on [the toughest task of] proving cross-country validity.... We do not prejudge the outcome."
Details about the roughly $12.5 million project are still being developed, but Yelland said the experiment would aim to test about 200 students at roughly 10 institutions of diverse types in each of six countries: Finland, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico and the United States, with participation in the U.S. limited to four states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri and Pennsylvania. The students will be tested "near the end" of their either three- or four-year (depending on the country) bachelor's degree programs, and groups of experts will, by the early part of next year, decide whether the measures provide reliably comparable measures across the various countries.
If the "proof of concept" experiment is positive, and OECD decides to promulgate international learning outcomes measures that it believes are meaningful and reliable, "we will have a tool that will help us to help those who are responsible for higher education in the various countries," Yelland said. Given the vast sums of money that governments are investing in expanding the quantity of postsecondary education they provide -- roughly $1 trillion a year, about 1.5 percent of the global gross domestic product, Yelland estimated -- "it's probably worth spending a little bit of time and effort in supporting quality," he said.
How does testing support quality? "Diagnosis is the beginning of any improvement," Yelland said, and right now countries have no way other than international rankings -- which are based mostly on factors such as scholarly output and reputation, rather than educational factors -- to assess the quality of their institutions.
The U.S. Role
The United States' role in the project will go beyond having colleges in the four states participate; the governments in the AHELO initiative will also provide money for it, OECD officials said.
Education Department officials could not be reached for comment about the OECD announcement (it was a busy day, given President Obama's State of the Union speech last night), but an OECD news release included a statement from Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter that praised OECD for its leadership "to assess student performance on an international scale."
The U.S. participation represents a change of heart from 2008, when Bush administration officials more or less stunned higher education officials by saying they did not plan to join the OECD effort to develop an international higher education assessment. Education Department officials at the time said they "do not anticipate, as a U.S. government, funding ... a feasibility study" for such an assessment.
The decision was a shocker, as many in American higher education saw it, because the administration had pressed hard (too hard, in their eyes) to force colleges within the United States to use comparable measures of student learning. "There are certainly people who may have thought that the department is going to push for internationalization of the use of something like the CLA," Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, then director of the Education Department's Institute for Education Sciences and the U.S. representative on the OECD's education policy committee, said at the time.
Exactly what it means that the Obama administration is backing exactly such an approach, when the outcomes-obsessed Bush administration did not, probably depends on one's perspective. It could be seen as a sign that this administration is much more interested, on any range of matters, in international collaboration and partnership; it could also be evidence that this administration is just as interested in data-driven higher education accountability and testing as its predecessor -- if not more so.