"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Test This, Says Higher Ed

With most of the corporate media mum on any subject that might upset King George, Inc., there has been growing discussion within the collegiate press on the incipient stupidity of the floated notion of standardized testing in American universities.

USA Today, as mainstream as it gets, is congratulated for offering this today by Bard President, Leon Botstein:
Block federal monitoring
Institutions of higher education should do a better job teaching students, making sure that they graduate with rigorous intellectual skills. But the federal government, with its dubious track record in management and efficiency, particularly in education, should be prevented from making matters worse.

The truth is that colleges and universities are being asked to pick up the pieces from high school and correct the widespread failure to teach basic skills. Nevertheless, even by default, we need more effective remediation to bring high school graduates up to speed.

We should not, however, paralyze one of the few globally competitive sectors of American society by inept federal regulation that harbors the illusion that testing is a valid cure. Colleges and universities, both private and public, are under political and financial pressure to graduate nearly everyone who is admitted. Too few of the best faculty teach undergraduates. Far too few courses of study are designed to provide a sound, general education. But the solution should come from within. Higher education needs to raise its standards of expectation of students and faculty by using the means that helped create our great network of institutions: rigorous self-policing and peer review.

Whatever the faults of our higher education system, it is still the best in the world, the envy of friends and enemies alike. Students come to the USA from around the world because of the unique diversity, excellence and innovativeness of our institutions, large and small, public and private. The European community is changing its higher education system to more closely resemble ours, away from its own traditions of centralized, national uniformity. Why is the Bush administration considering testing to go in the opposite direction?

We Americans pride ourselves in thriving in an atmosphere of competition with as little regulation as possible. This is the atmosphere that creates innovation, and it is the condition, absolutely appropriate, for higher education and research. The most dangerous threat to the American university is not financial; it is the specter of thoughtless control by politics and bureaucracy.

Leon Botstein is president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

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