A Herculean Effort
Though thoughtfully done, the report
tends to be a tad deceptive
By Stephen R. Portch
Stephen R. Portch is chancellor of the University System of Georgia.
ALL THE WORLD loves a report card. It’s simple. It’s digestible. And it has all the appearance of
So it was with Measuring Up 2000. There were certain ironies in its release. The never-ending presi-dential
elections dominated what might otherwise have been “Measuring Up” media space. And, of
course, presidential elections are supposed to be simple, digestible and objective. Not so.
But first the positives. Measuring Up 2000 certainly stimulated debate and, in a particularly delicious
move, received its own report card from American Association of State Colleges and Universities (B+ for
debate stimulation, and a gentleman’s C on structure and approach).
The report was ambitious and thoughtfully done. While public attention was focused on the report
cards themselves, the actual document was dense with data, complete with context, and enriched with
narrative. Benchmarking and cross-state comparisons are frightfully difficult and complex, especially
given the notorious unreliability of data; this was a Herculean and respectable effort.
Refreshingly, the report showed its willingness to slice data in new and interesting ways (e.g.,
ACT/SAT data not on averages, but on top scorers). Furthermore, the report reinforced that education is
a continuum and that the correlation between preparation and performance demands attention. Indeed,
this provides even more ammunition for those of us who believe P–16 initiatives are the only way to go.
That having been said, however, the report tends to be a tad deceptive. Let’s start with the title (or,
to be more precise, the subtitle). As with any good romance novel, it captures attention. But this really
was not a “Report Card for Higher Education.” First, it included all postsecondary education (two-year
colleges, technical schools, public colleges and universities, and independent colleges and universities).
Second (having split that semantic hair), it really and truly was a report card on comprehensive educa-tion
conditions in a state (and, arguably, social conditions). If students in a state were poorly “pre-pared,”
then “participation,” “completion” and “benefits” were likely to suffer. While this reinforces a
critical message about the importance of preparation,
it almost inevitably dooms and compounds the rest of
Another deceptive element is the apparent objec-tivity.
Lots of numbers, colored bar charts, and multi-ple
categories lend credence to objectivity. Yet, as
anyone who has graded anything knows, subjectivity
lurks just below the surface. For example, the decision
to grade against the “top states” rather than the aver-age
makes a difference, especially in underscoring the
gap between the top and the bottom. While perfectly
legitimate, this is a value judgement that makes a dif-ference.
A value judgement that completely undermined
the report’s credibility in Georgia was the decision to
base “affordability” largely on needs-based aid. In the
state that birthed HOPE (a merit-based program), the
decision resulted in a D+ for affordability. That simply
didn’t ring true for the over 100,000 students this year
(and their parents) who are paying no tuition or
mandatory fees. A simple cross-referencing with the
report’s own very useful public opinion poll should
have raised doubts with the authors about the validity
of the grade. A mere 15 percent of Georgians said the
price of college was out of reach, versus 24 percent nationally. The five states that got A’s on affordabili-ty
from the authors didn’t necessarily get them from their citizens: California (24 percent), Illinois (26
percent), Minnesota (17 percent), North Carolina (25 percent) and Utah (23 percent). Such inconsisten-cies
deserve further study and should result in changes—or a more explicit declaration of values.
So, what grade would I give the report card? Its own favorite grade: “Incomplete,” with the full
understanding that most of us would trade our first grade in college for an I.