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  Meaningful, Measurable Goals

National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview
 

A Gift for Our Nation

National report card is comprehensive, useful and easy to understand

By Arthur Levine
Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College at Columbia University.

I LOVE THE REPORT CARD. I am taken with its simplicity, the fact that it focuses on six universally agreed upon goals for higher education. There is no state that doesn’t wish for its young people to be well prepared for college, to attend college in significant numbers, to be able to afford college, to learn in college, to graduate from college, and to benefit from their education. The report card has man-aged to quantify these goals with indicators that cross all fifty state boundaries. In this sense, the report card is also comprehensive.

It is additionally easy to understand. Each state is compared in the six areas and given a grade. The grades are on the same scale we use for our students, A–F. This allows anyone—governor, legislator, stu-dent, parent, college administrator, faculty member or reporter—to examine and understand how well his or her state is doing.

The report card is useful as well. Any state can now compare how well it is doing in contrast to both its own goals and the other 49 states. This means a state can target areas for improvement and locate models, states with A’s in the area, to look to for direction.

I suppose the biggest surprise is that a comprehensive, systematic, data based, state by state report card has not existed before. (The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education makes it look so easy.) Each year this nation invests hundred of billions of dollars in its colleges and universities. It is about time we stop and ask how well each state is doing.

The other surprise in the report card is the “Incomplete” given in the area of learning. This is a pow-erful warning. With all the money and effort we are investing in postsecondary education, we have no idea what students are learning. This needs to be a priority for the states, perhaps a project to be under-taken by the U.S. Department of Education or by the states jointly through an organization like the Education Commission of the States.

I am pleased that the report card will be issued every two years so that it will be a part of most gov-ernors’ cases for election or reelection.

There are a few items I would suggest for future versions of the report card. The six criteria by which states were measured do not seem to be discreet. For instance, there would seem to be a close connection between affordability and participation, though this is not obvious in the ratings given differ-ent states. How is it possible for a high-cost state to have a high participation rate? The real question is: Does each of the six variables really measure a different thing?

The variable called “benefits” seems soft. It measures things like voting rates, which may have more to do with the salience of issues and the positions of candidates in a given state than education levels. The “benefits” indicators—civic, economic, achievement levels and adult skills—seem a hodgepodge of stuff, and are less convincing than the others. I would like to see “benefits” strengthened. The report card also looked, where possible, at race and income gaps in attendance and gradua-tion. It would be very useful to expand this and perhaps consider creating a seventh variable dealing with “equity.”

As for the immediate future, my greatest fear is that the report card, like much of the education news, could be a story that lasts only a few days. The measure of the report card’s success is in the action taken by states, the degree to which improvement is made in postsecondary education. This requires that the report card be kept before the public and the policymakers in each state.

In any case, I offer my thanks to the National Center for giving our nation a wonderful gift.

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