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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

3 of 7 Stories

Measuring Student Performance
Government, business and higher education leaders attend a "National Forum on College-Level Learning"

A new effort has begun to measure college-level learning on a state-by-state basis.

When the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education published a 50-state higher education "report card" a year ago, every state received an "incomplete" in the student learning area because, as consultant Peter Ewell wrote, "there are no common benchmarks that would allow meaningful state-by-state comparisons."

 
  Margaret Miller
Only a handful of states now use a common test to measure student performance, Ewell wrote, and even those few employ different tests for different purposes. He noted several past efforts to establish "common benchmarks for collegiate learning," all of which failed.

But the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Center decided to pursue this elusive goal, inviting a small group of government, business and higher education leaders to a "National Forum on College-Level Learning" in Purchase, New York, late last fall.

 
Michael Nettles  
After a full discussion, the group, which included two sitting and three former state governors, urged the Center to pursue the project, in hopes of coming up with information that could be included in future report cards.

Margaret Miller, professor of education at the University of Virginia, organized the forum. In an interview, Miller said she was "very pleased" with the Purchase meeting —"The quality of the conversation was very good." She said the group had decided on short-term, medium-term and longrange actions.

In the short term, Miller said, information will be gathered from existing tests, like the Graduate Record Exam, the Law School Admissions Test, the Medical School Admissions Test and licensing examinations for teachers and health professionals. To these will be added results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy and "indirect measures" such as the National Survey of Student Engagement and employer surveys.

The hope is that enough useful data can be obtained to make state-by-state comparisons possible.

One obstacle, several forum participants pointed out, is that test makers guard their results carefully and might not be willing to make them available for this project. "This is very complicated or it would already have been done," observed Emerson J. Elliott, director of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

The next step would be to identify a group of states—perhaps a half dozen—that would cooperate with the project by generating information about what Miller called the "intellectual capacities of their college-educated citizens." If these pilot states provide data that make an evaluation of college-level learning seem feasible, then all states could be asked for this same information, which could be incorporated into future National Center report cards.

In the long run, Miller said, and many conference participants agreed, an entirely new test must be devised to determine the extent to which colleges and universities are training students in the critical areas of communications skills, problem solving and critical thinking.

 
  Governors and ex-governors who attended the forum included (front row) Jim Gerringer,Wyoming; James B. Hunt Jr., North Carolina; Paul Patton, Kentucky; (back row) Garrey Carruthers, New Mexico; and John R. McTernan, Jr., Maine.
But it also was agreed that the national economic recession, and the severe budget problems facing many states, make this a bad time to propose a new and expensive program that would try to determine which states were taking effective steps to enhance collegelevel learning, and which were not.

Participants in the Purchase forum were Governors Jim Geringer of Wyoming and Paul Patton of Kentucky; former Governors Garrey Carruthers of New Mexico, James B. Hunt Jr., of North Carolina (who is also chairman of the National Center's Board of Directors) and John R. McKernan, Jr., of Maine; and Jack Scott, member of the California State Senate.

 
Lillian Montoya-Real  
Also, Roger A. Enrico, vice chairman of PepsiCo, Inc.; Milton Goldberg, executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business; Charles Miller, chairman, Meridian National, Inc.; Steffen E. Palko, vice chair and president,XTO Energy, Inc.; and Edward B. Rust, Jr., chairman, president and chief executive officer, State Farm Mutual.

Also, Gordon Davies, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education; Thomas Ehrlich, senior scholar, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Glenn R. Jones, president and chief executive officer, Jones International, Ltd; Ann Kirschner, president and chief executive officer, FATHOM;and Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University system.

 
  Roger A. Enrico
Also, Lillian Montoya-Rael, executive director, (New Mexico) Regional Development Corporation; Michael Nettles, professor of education and public policy, University of Michigan; Sean C. Rush, IBM; Ted Sanders, president of the Education Commission of the States; and Kala Stroup, commissioner of higher education in Missouri.

Also present were members of an advisory committee to the forum. In addition to Miller, Elliott and Ewell, the committee includes Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education; Joni E. Finney, the National Center's vice president; and David W. Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Virginia B. Smith, president emerita of Vassar College, is a member of the committee but did not attend the forum.

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