Universities to be tested to distraction

US schools policy has been all about accountability and measurement. This has led to demoralisation among teachers and a narrowing of what education means. Now higher education is about to be subjected to the same experience.

US President Barack Obama said in his recent state of the union address that teachers should not “teach to the test”. Everyone loves that sentiment, and Obama’s words resonated with teachers. But his signature programme, Race to the Top, requires that states evaluate teachers based on the test scores of their students.

It encourages states and districts to award bonuses to teachers based on the test scores of their students. It recommends that states and districts fire staff and close schools if their test scores are too low. Under these circumstances, how can teachers avoid teaching to the test?

The US Department of Education – under both President George W Bush and Obama – loves measurement and data. The new language of education prizes data-driven decision-making.

Federal funds now pay states to build warehouses of data so that students can be tracked from their earliest years through college and beyond. The department wants colleges of education to be held accountable if the students of their graduates don’t get higher test scores.

Now the children of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy of annual tests for maths and reading are arriving on college campuses.

These are students who have spent a large part of their lives preparing to take standardised tests. They have been taught year after year how to read a short passage and select one of four bubbles. One of the four bubbles is correct. The others are wrong.

Under the pressure of NCLB and Race to the Top, billions of dollars have been spent to increase testing and measurement, and to ignore learning.

The lives of teachers and principals, and the survival of their schools, depend on whether students pick the right bubble. Careers will be ruined if students pick too many wrong bubbles. In some states, the legislature has decreed that test scores will be used to fire teachers if student scores don’t go up.

One would think these tests are unerring scientific instruments, but they are not. They are not barometers or thermometers; they are social constructions. They mirror culture and demography; they rank and rate children beginning at an early age.

Testing experts warn that the tests are subject to statistical error, random error, human error. Sometimes the questions are wrong. Sometimes there are two plausible answers and the thoughtful student will pick the wrong answer.

No one asks what it does to students’ way of thinking when they are subjected, year after year, to this reductive approach to assessing their skills and knowledge. No one asks what it will eventually do to our society when an entire generation has been trained to guess the right answer.

But never mind all that. Data now drive our decision-making, even if the data are themselves of dubious validity. In the past year alone, we have seen major cheating scandals in Washington DC and Atlanta, Georgia. There will be more, as the stakes grow higher. But the corruption of measurement and the obliteration of educational purposes don’t matter. The data are all that matter.

Who are the victims of these short-sighted policies?

First, the students, who have been taught to find the right answer. Unless they had a daring teacher, they were not taught to ask their own questions or to challenge the allegedly right answer. When they arrive on campus, they are expected to read difficult texts, but they have little experience of that. They are expected to challenge the conventional wisdom, but they have been taught to respond obediently on command, not to ask why.

Teachers have also been the victims of this regime of standardised testing. Teachers who love teaching are constrained by this regime; they became teachers because they want to open students’ minds and expose them to new ideas. They don’t like what federal policy is doing to them. They know they are losing their professional autonomy. Experienced teachers are demoralised, depressed and confused.

Twenty years ago, the modal years of experience for American teachers was 15, meaning there were more teachers with 15 years’ experience in the classroom than any other group. The latest data, from the US Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey for 2008, show that the modal teacher in the US is in his or her first year of teaching.

Experienced teachers are leaving the classroom. This is a tragedy for our nation.

Higher education

The mindset that has unleashed so much harm on our K-12 schools is now moving inexorably towards higher education. Obama says he wants a Race to the Top for higher education. Race to the Top has been disastrous for our public schools and teachers, but he now wants higher education to share the pain of government-regulated accountability.

Obama says that colleges and universities must cut costs or he will cut back federal aid. Don’t make excuses about states cutting the budget for higher education. Obama wants colleges and universities to begin collecting data about outcomes so families can gauge their quality.

Obama’s agenda echoes the decline and crisis rhetoric that has become commonplace over the past several years. We have seen a spate of books and commission reports warning that our universities are failing, that students aren’t learning anything, that colleges and universities are cheating the public, that tenure must be abolished, and that accountability is needed, preferably a cost-benefit analysis for individual professors and courses.

Yale scholar Peter Brooks wrote recently that the purveyors of doom and gloom are wrong; that the crisis rhetoric is a red herring intended to divert our attention from “the larger crisis in American society: the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots, the retreat from any commitment to economic fairness, the sense that the [economic] system is rigged to benefit a tarnished elite that no longer justifies its existence”.

The root cause of low test scores is poverty; low academic achievement is concentrated in districts where there is concentrated poverty and racial segregation. Lack of medical care, lack of basic nutrition, lack of economic security – all these affect academic performance. But it is the teachers of these children who will be held accountable, not the underlying causes.


Now higher education is in the firing line. The critics want measurement. They want data.

The Spellings Commission report of 2006 complained that higher education lacked accountability. It complained that students, parents and policy-makers were not getting enough information to figure out which institutions are giving them their money’s worth and which are teaching them “what they need to learn”.

Like the Nation at Risk report of 1983, which said that schools were responsible for a “rising tide of mediocrity”, the Spellings report warned that higher education was likely to lose “market share” and to risk becoming obsolete, like railroads and the steel industry.

Just weeks ago came a report from the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, an organisation funded by the Carnegie Corporation, pointing the way to a grim future. Although the report makes the customary bows to the value of knowledge and problem-solving abilities, what it recommends is setting goals, collecting data, assessing outcomes, and gathering factual evidence of what students should learn and have learned.

As I read this report, sponsored by a collection of illustrious organisations, it sounds alarmingly like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Institutions will, it says, articulate measurable goals about what students “should be able to do, achieve, demonstrate, or know upon the completion of each undergraduate degree”. Levels of achievement should be assessed against “an externally informed or benchmarked level of achievement or assessed and compared with those of similar institutions”.

Student progress towards the goals will be disaggregated by “gender, race-ethnicity, and other variables…” Institutions will make clear “when, how, and how frequently learning outcomes will be assessed”. Assessment will be “integrated into the work of faculty, administrators and staff”. Performance will be compared to other institutions and among sub-groups of students.

You can expect that as this scenario unfolds, the government will insist that professors are ranked according to their effectiveness and productivity. Which are producing graduates who are ready for the workforce? Whose students have learned the most?

And if Race to the Top is implemented in higher education, expect the government to insist that the professors whose students do not make measurable progress at the end of their courses be replaced.

While critics complain that higher education spends too much on administration, universities must prepare to create a new administrative department of assessment and accountability to oversee these new responsibilities.

Yes, the federal government will insist that more data are collected, that professors are held accountable for student progress and that all decisions are data-based. We now know from Race to the Top that if students don’t learn, it is not their fault, it is their teachers’ fault, and the teachers must be held accountable.

This misapplication of assessment and accountability mechanisms smacks of anti-intellectualism. Something wicked this way comes, a rough beast, a bottomline mentality that cares not a whit for imagination, creativity, innovation or serious scholarship.

Left to fester, this spirit will destroy American higher education and impose the same mindless accountability that is crushing the life and spirit out of K-12 education.

How shall we measure the knowledge and skills gained in a course on art history? Music appreciation? The history of the Middle East? Shall students take pre-tests and post-tests to check how much they have learned in each course?

How shall we calculate the value of a scholar who teaches Greek literature or freshman composition or sociology? How shall we calculate the return on investment of a scholar who spends years writing a book? Shall we measure the value of a book by its Amazon ranking? Shall we value scholars by the number of their citations on Google Scholar?

How much time and money will be devoted to these exercises in accountability? Who will be held accountable if students take courses and don’t acquire the necessary skills and knowledge? What if students cut that course? Shouldn’t students have some responsibility for their learning?

The glory of American higher education has derived from three specific ideas: the freedom to teach, the freedom to learn, and the freedom to think.

How will this freedom be affected by the mania for data and accountability? The more we attempt to quantify what cannot be quantified, the more we narrow the purposes of education.

Professors will be required to tailor what they teach and how to teach because a committee outside their classrooms created measurable goals and outcomes. Professors will be judged not by their peers but by assessments that are unrelated to their own goals for their students. The freedom to teach will be abridged by the demand for quantifiable outcomes.

Students will no longer be responsible for their learning. Instead, their professors will be held accountable if students don’t do their reading, don’t attend class and exhibit no effort.

And if NCLB and Race to the Top are our guides, then we can predict that students will lose the freedom to learn because they too will be subjugated to the accountability juggernaut. Pity them if they diverge from the official curriculum, if they dare to think unscripted thoughts, if they pursue avenues of inquiry that cannot be quantified or assessed.

There is no standardised test that can tell us whether professors are successful. There is no standardised test that can fully measure the important values that higher learning seeks to impart.

Disregarding quality

Too many young people arrive in college and university without the necessary skills and knowledge for the work they are expected to do. Too many campuses are allocating precious resources to remediation because the high schools have been pressured to hand out diplomas to students who are not ready for college-level studies.

This is not a problem of higher education's making, but it is one that lands on its doorstep. It will not be solved until policy-makers in Washington DC and in state capitals stop demanding that high schools boost their graduation rate without regard to the quality of education of their graduates.

American higher education achieved international greatness because scholars were free to think and speak and teach the subjects in which they were expert. American institutions of higher education became the great engines of research and the mechanisms of technological innovation because they were bastions of free inquiry for both scholars and their students.

American higher education became the wonder of the world not because it watched the bottom line, not because it graded its professors with scores, not because it prepared its students for careers and vocations, but because it cultivated the minds, the ingenuity, the creativity and the judgment of its students.

The results speak for themselves. We have been and we must continue to be, a nation where our colleges and universities are the guardians, champions and generators of intellectual freedom.

* Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at New York University and a
historian of education. This is an edited version of her speech given to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on 30 January 2012, published with permission.