As Congress and the U.S. Education Department contemplate whether and how  to force colleges to publish significantly more information  about their performance, two associations of public universities are forging ahead with their own plan for a voluntary accountability system  under which institutions would release data about student learning outcomes that most of them have not typically made public. And the major association of private colleges on Monday offered a look at its own accountability template,  which would give institutions much more leeway  about what they report about their students' classroom success.
The two public-college groups, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, unveiled a draft template  for the joint "Voluntary System of Accountability" on which they have been working for more than a year.  The groups' leaders anticipate that the voluntary reporting system -- which contains data on such things as graduation and retention rates, financial aid, tuition and other costs and, most controversially, students' performance on measures of learning outcomes -- will be approved by the associations' boards in November, and up and running soon thereafter.
"The most encouraging thing at this point is that we believe the concept of a voluntary system of accountability has taken hold and will become a reality in a significant number of our institutions," Constantine W. (Deno) Curris, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said at a briefing for reporters Monday. He and M. Peter McPherson, his counterpart at the association of land-grant colleges, said they would not dare predict how many of the two groups' 600-plus members would ultimately embrace and use the voluntary system. But they noted that officials from several dozen universities have participated on committees that have helped draft the approach, which they hoped would bode well.
"It's important for higher education to be willing to be accountable to the public, and AASCU and NASULGC have given us a vehicle by which we can do that," said Jolene Koester, president of California State University-Northridge.
Much of the information contained in the public colleges' draft accountability system is already available in some form or another. But the voluntary system would require a major change in institutional practice to the extent that it would compel the colleges and universities that choose to participate to report their scores on measures of student engagement (which many use and report selected information about) and to begin using one of three standardized measures of student learning -- the Collegiate Learning Assessment,  the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency,  and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress  -- and reporting their scores on those tests.
David E. Shulenburger, vice president of academic affairs at NASULGC, estimated that roughly 100 of the more than 600 members of the two public college groups now use one of the three standardized measures in some meaningful way -- and that very few use them in a way that would allow them to develop overall "mean" scores for the institutions in the way envisioned by the accountability system. The state-college groups' plan calls for institutions to give the standardized test to small samples of freshmen and seniors and then measure the difference -- the "value added" that the universities have brought to their students.
Many college and faculty leaders have pushed back hard against calls by the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the Education Department to require institutions to use standardized measurements of student learning, which they have derided as imposing a "one size fits all" approach to higher education that would diminish experimentation and impede the use of learning portfolios and other ways of gauging student development.
McPherson said he believed that providing three options for colleges and universities to meet would "let at least a couple flowers bloom" as testing experts and companies develop new and perhaps better measures of student learning, which could be added to the menu over time. "This will be a market-driven academic process, and I fully expect we're going go know a lot more in three to four years than we know now," he added.
Campus officials who have helped the two associations draft their accountability program say that its section on student learning outcomes will be a "hard sell" on some campuses, as Dan Fogel, president of the University of Vermont, put it. "The reaction of faculty at a forward-thinking place like UVM is that it seems like a move toward national standardized testing that smacks of No Child Left Behind for higher education" said Fogel, who headed the NASULCG/AASCU panel that is working on the accountability system's approach to core educational outcomes.
Fogel said that he hoped his institution would be an early adopter of the voluntary system -- but that he could not ensure it, given the independence of his faculty, whose leaders have challenged the push for readily measurable and comparable learning outcomes, particularly in true liberal arts fields.
He said that he had made headway in discussions with faculty leaders at Vermont "by appealing to what we all know -- that a lot of our students are leaving colleges and universities without being competent writers, for instance." Fogel said he did not believe that the kind of sampling called for in the state colleges' voluntary system, which at Vermont would result in just a few hundred of its 12,000 students being tested on general educational outcomes, would displace the broad array of internal testing and other assessments that departments and programs at Vermont use to show their own effectiveness.
Trudy W. Banta, senior advisor to the chancellor for academic planning and evaluation at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has vocally cautioned  about the potential dangers inherent in using standardized measures of learning outcomes. She said Monday that she remained wary that attempts to measure student learning for "accountability" reasons, using a limited number of standardized measures, could impede the sort of experimentation in which faculty members and academic administrators engage to best gauge what works and doesn't in educating students. (See related Views article. )
But Banta, who has participated in the NASULGC and AASCU discussions about the voluntary system of accountability, said that she increasingly recognized that public institutions, particularly, are under pressure from policy makers to "demonstrate their accountability in more transparent ways than has been the case in the past," and that she had come to believe that, done right, the public college groups' approach could accomplish that without damaging institutions' own efforts at internal "assessment for improvement."
Only, though, "if faculty become engaged in that process," Banta said. "It’s all about engaging the faculty in deciding on the instrument, making sure that the test covers some of the student learning outcomes they think are important, and then looking at scores to see what they say about whether students know those things or not, and using that information to improve teaching and student services."
The standardized use and reporting of student learning outcomes is what most distinguishes the accountability system crafted by the two public college groups from those emerging from other groups of colleges. The Association of American Universities, which represents major public and private research universities in the United States and Canada, said in May that its 62 members had “committed to collecting and providing to the public basic information about undergraduate student performance, such as graduation rates, time to degree, and careers pursued following graduation,” as well as agreeing to “develop cost estimators that will provide more accurate information about the actual (also known as ‘net’) costs to individual students to attend a specific institution.”
And Monday, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities formally released a sample template  for the "University & College Accountability Network it has been quietly developing. The NAICU proposal, which its president, David L. Warren, said had been drafted in response to what the association heard in focus groups of students and parents and from lawmakers like Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), would provide information about colleges' students and graduates, tuition costs and financial aid, and student life.
And while it would give the private college group's members an opportunity to describe and present data on what and how much their students learn, it would not compel them to present information in any standardized way, or at all, for that matter. "If some institutions are participating in [the National Survey of Student Engagement], we provide them a section on the template where an individual could click on that and go to the institution's Web site," said Frank Balz, vice president for research and policy analysis at the independent college group. "If some are using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a student can find that out, too. That variety and diversity is something we wanted to capture. We did not want to do the opposite: try to funnel all 1,600 private institutions into one measure," he said, adding the understatement: "NAICU institutions are not fans of standardization."
The various groups' proposals are being fleshed out at a time when lawmakers in the House and Senate and officials in the Education Department are still wrestling with whether (and, if so, how) to compel colleges and universities to collect and make public a range of additional information -- most notably about student learning.
College leaders are clearly hopeful that their own efforts to produce the information voluntarily (though clearly under pressure from policy makers) will persuade government officials to back off. "There are clearly some areas where legislation would be counterproductive," said Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities. "Not just for the inconvenience it might cause for institutions, but we take very seriously the notion that it could have a real negative impact on the innovation and diversity of U.S. higher education, if you go with some of these ideas."
Added Warren, president of NAICU: "We think rigid and narrow and nationally defined and legislatively determined just misses the boat entirely."
But if federal officials decide to give higher education the benefit of the doubt and let their voluntary efforts suffice for now, college leaders will make a mistake if they "slip back and say, because the pressures are off, we can slow down or back away," said Charles Miller, who headed the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, whose 2006 report added to the pressure college groups felt to undertake their own efforts.
"If there's more foot dragging, a sense that 'we can go back to what we like to do,' then they're not serving the American public. I hope the leadership of higher education sees that."