my report for the New America Foundation


Hey friends, I’m thrilled to share with you a new report that I developed for the New America Foundation, titled “Standardized Assessments of College Learning: Past and Future.” It’s available here as a PDF. A brief synopsis can be found here.

Drawn in part from my dissertation research, the report discusses the touchy subject of assessment of college learning. This is a topic of great importance to the future of the academy, with successive presidential administrations having called for more assessment and proposing that such assessments be high stakes for institutions. I believe that colleges and universities must undertake more and better assessment. This is true because we have a clear duty, in a world where college is more and more important to securing economic stability and upward mobility, to ensure that our students are getting what they paid for, particularly given the massive costs of tuition. This is also true because we face existential threats to our traditional institutions from online and for profit colleges. I believe traditional colleges and universities do a far better job of teaching than those competitors. But we have to actually prove it, and we can’t do that if we don’t assess.

But assessment is fraught business — it’s fraught empirically, politically, and pedagogically. There are real risks, here, risks that must be taken seriously. We have to use these instruments with skepticism and care, or else we risk drawing bad conclusions from them and making bad decisions in turn. In the paper, I detail the political and economic issues that led us to this moment, undertake a brief history of college assessment, describe some of the major tests and their limitations, discuss potential pitfalls and controversies, and lay out my recommendations for where to go from here. Please read the report. It’s the result of a lot of hard work and I’m very proud of it. In particular, I wanted to make it that rare policy document that’s actually a pleasure to read. Let me know what you think.


  1. Seems like a good overview of the matter at hand. Your point 3 in “Recommendations” is quite sensible. I’ve never understood why it is that K-12 testing is so intrusive. Leaving aside that it almost guarantees “teaching to the test”, it creates an atmosphere in which getting an education is synonymous with everyone filling out standardized tests that have the explicit purpose of allowing comparison of one *body* of students to another. Maybe I just don’t understand, but this approach strikes me as verging on innumerate. Do smart-alec high-school students ever raise their hands and point this out? Overall/aggregate student achievement levels should be able to be determined without the students (for the most part) really being aware they are being tested at all. Companies don’t count physical inventory, they statistically sample it – saving considerable costs without harming accuracy.

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