An "SAT" for College Grads?

The steady march toward competency-based measures of college effectiveness continues. And it cannot be too long before these measures become serious competition to obsolete and misleading quasi-measures such as seat time and traditional grades.

What’s driving this trend? One thing is that employers are becoming increasingly skeptical that traditional GPAs and college accreditation are a good measure of knowledge and skills. For good reason: a recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) shows even many Ivy League colleges do a pitiful job at providing an education in core subjects. Another is that the credit hour is a meaningless measure for MOOCs or even online courses taken in college. Moreover, with new forms of college appearing, traditional accreditation--or the lack of it--doesn’t mean very much.

There are several elements within this trend. Some companies, like Google and General Mills, and some organizations, like Teach for America, are using their own assessment instruments and exams to measure a graduate applicant’s knowledge and aptitude. That pattern is likely to grow, especially in those areas--like IT and other technical fields--where specific knowledge is critical to success on the job.

Another element is the growth of third-party, post-graduation exams to provide some form of standardized measure of knowledge and ability, in effect an SAT or “bar exam” for college graduates. Next spring seniors in about 200 colleges will take an SAT-like exam called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, developed by the Council for Aid to Education. And earlier this year the Education Testing Service announced that students taking its iSkills assessment will receive an electronic certificate they can send to employers and colleges. Such independent certification is likely to grow as it outflanks the traditional GPA by providing a more standard measure of skill. And it also provides a solution for employers trying to determine the ability of an applicant whose education includes a mixture of traditional and non-traditional courses, such as MOOCs. Not surprisingly, testing firms see this as an attractive market for providing third-party evaluation of skills and more objective certification for graduates.

These skills measurement tools are in parallel with another element in the equation--the growing use of scorecards that provide a third-party indication of the effectiveness of particular institutions. There are a number of these, each using different methodologies as they try to edge toward better forms of measurement or reflect different customer interests. So scorecards from US News & World Report, Forbes, and Kiplinger focus on measures of commercial value, using such measures as graduating salaries compared with the net cost of the education, while the ACTA survey compares institutions more on the core subjects being taught. 

Interestingly, some states are now moving to use outcome measures, such as degree completion rates, as a factor in funding their public colleges. In the last few years 16 states have begun to do this and, according to Complete College America, “it’s sweeping the country,” with half the states in the near future likely to link funding in this way.

As might be expected, some college leaders are criticizing these trends. But it is unlikely they can resist for long the demand for serious output measures and more clarity in graduates’ skills.

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Posted by: Stuart Butler

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