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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

Focusing Public Attention

A national report card for higher education is long overdue

By Tom Imeson
Tom Imeson is past president of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education.

WHAT’S TROUBLING about the nation’s first national report card on higher education isn’t all about grades. It’s also about the defensive attitude many have taken to having an independent party grade our national preparedness for higher education.

Many were disappointed when the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued its first report card late last fall. No one earned straight A’s. The B’s were scattered. C’s were abundant. But what really hurt were those D’s and F’s.

The response was predictable. Some expressed outrage. Others found fault with the data. Still oth-ers assigned their own grades to the report.

What’s clear is that no one liked being told that their state had failed in its commitment to students. Yet maybe that is exactly what it takes to focus greater public attention on our nation’s interwoven prob-lems at all levels of education.

My state received several low marks for participation and affordability, and our rating sparked the interest of many people. As proud Oregonians, we might have quibbled with the methodology and data by which those marks were compiled, or with the initiatives that were overlooked in the analysis, but there’s no denying their basic accuracy. Any independent observer of education in Oregon would likely have given the same grades.

As a university trustee and former governor’s chief-of-staff, I am not one bit pleased by those marks. But neither am I discouraged by my state’s relative showing. In fact, I am hopeful that the revelation of our weakness may help to stir public passion toward corrective and consistent action.

I applaud the effort to develop a national report card for higher education. It is long overdue.

We need a national report card to help our states measure their own progress, which is more important than simply comparing one state with another. And real meaning can come from having the ability to document performance over time, and from the credibility of having the analysis done by an independent observer.

We also need a national report card because we need an analytical tool for evaluating education systems and outcomes—one that the general public can readily recognize, understand and rely upon. We may differ about what standards should be evaluated and how best to take the measure of our work. But we should use our differences of opinion to build an understanding for consensus and to con-struct a set of clearly defined terms, commonly understood and succinctly communicated.

For example, I take particular exception to the assumption that four years is the proper standard to measure college completion. My own view is that many students are non-traditional in how they work toward completion. I have difficulty with measuring college completion within four years, because I believe such a standard fails to consider far too many contemporary students who, in their mind, and in mine, are making satisfactory progress toward completion of a college career.

Finally, I believe we also need a national report card to help remind America that all of us share in the accountability of our schools’ performance. The success or failure of this nation’s ability to prepare tomorrow’s youth is not the sole responsibility of any one state or educational system. It is a responsibil-ity we share with each other as citizens in every state in this nation. And if we have failed, we need to know when and where we have been unsuccessful, so that we can act quickly and appropriately to improve our collective performance on behalf of this nation’s future.

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