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The School Testing Dodge

(The Miami Herald, Sunday, June 25, 2006.)

Colleges enter testing debate

Standardized tests, now a common tool for measuring public school students, have been increasingly discussed at the college level.

By Noah Bierman

The debates over standardized testing that have dominated public schools for most of the past decade are shifting to the college and university level.

Florida State University took a small but significant step this month when its board of trustees agreed to look at testing students in basic skills as a graduation requirement. FSU could require such a test for all students as soon as fall 2007.

''We recognize that there is a push around the country,'' said Karen Laughlin, dean of undergraduate studies at FSU. Laughlin said a pilot program using an existing exam will help evaluate what it will cost to administer and grade the test on a large scale and help measure whether there are weaknesses in what students are learning.

FSU's plan comes as a key commission appointed by President Bush's administration is set to release a report on the future of higher education. The commission's discussions have been divisive among educators -- in large part because its chairman advocates testing as a way to judge whether colleges and universities are doing their jobs.

Though a small percentage of campuses around the country use standardized tests to gauge learning, even proponents think it will be hard to force a national standard.

Most college students have gone through their entire school careers taking standardized tests and then a college entrance exam. Many are weary of more tests on top of course work.

''It's really difficult. You have to take so many requirements,'' said Maria Talavera, a sophomore at Florida International University majoring in chemistry. ``If you're able to pass those classes, you're able to get out of college.''

But Talavera's classmate, Adrian Cros, said a uniform test might be helpful in proving to employers that his diploma means something.

''Given that different universities have different reputations,'' he said, ``a standardized test would sort of even the score.''

So far, most leaders in Florida have shunned the tests, which come up for debate every few years.

''The great strength of the American university system is its pluralism -- that there are hundreds of different approaches to the same issue,'' said Mark Rosenberg, the chancellor of Florida's university system.

Because college students have majors, critics argue it's more difficult to test a set of common expectations.

''I'm just skeptical that any single exam could do that well,'' said Mike Michalson, president of New College, the smallest of the 11 state universities. ``Each school is in the best position to know how to do that for its students.''

As a graduation requirement, the Sarasota school, which uses detailed evaluations instead of grades, requires students to create a thesis project and face a board of three faculty members who consider an entire career at the school.

`LEARNING COMPACTS'

Other Florida universities are too large to offer that kind of individual attention to most students. Under political pressure, they have begun creating ''academic learning compacts'' in recent years that allow professors in each department to create a set of requirements designed to measure whether students can think critically.

Michalson and others say the push for accountability is a result of the rising cost of tuition at the national level.

FSU will use a test that has been around Florida since 1984 -- the College Level Academic Skills Test, or CLAST. The CLAST has four parts -- essay, language, reading and math. It was initially designed to ensure students completing their sophomore year at a community college or university could handle upper-level courses.

Critics complained it was culturally biased, and the state changed the law in 1995 so that only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of students in community colleges and state universities now take it.

Only 1,947 community college students took all four portions of the test in the 2004-05 school year. Among university students, 1,600 took all four subjects.

Public universities in Texas have been moving more aggressively on the testing front. Four years ago, the nine schools in the University of Texas system began looking for ways to test. Tests designed by faculty at individual campuses proved unwieldy, said Pedro Reyes, associate vice chancellor for academic planning and assessment for the Texas system. By 2004, the system began using an interactive computerized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA. It is three hours of complex, essay-based questions.

Only a few hundred students at each campus take the test. It's meant to measure how the college is performing rather than gauge an individual student's level of ability. Reyes said most departments have separate exit exams to determine whether students can graduate.

140 SCHOOLS

Since 2002, when the CLA was developed, about 140 schools across the country have used it, according to Richard Hersh, senior fellow at the not-for-profit Council for Aid to Education and co-director of the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

FSU will also experiment with the CLA tests this fall, Laughlin said.

Hersh will not reveal which other colleges are using the test because he wants schools to feel comfortable that it's an improvement tool rather than another version of the US News and World Report rankings.

''We have no interest in making this a public contest,'' he said. ``Testing is not always meant to be a put-down or label.''

Hersh said current measurements, including reliance on multiple-choice tests, do little to measure students' ability to write, think critically, solve problems and analyze.

''We actually can show that where you go to college does make a difference,'' he said.

REPORT DUE IN AUGUST

Charles Miller, who was chairman of the Texas board of regents when it began pushing for testing, is now chairman of the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. His final report is due out in August, and Miller is hoping to reframe the debate on higher education. But the commission will not recommend a national standardized test, he said.

The commission will ''have some kind of generic recommendation,'' he said. ```We'll say something about the need to measure student learning.''

Miller and other proponents do not like the word ''standardized test'' because they say it has become a pejorative term.

The CLA uses interactive technology that goes deeper than multiple-choice tests and would not have been possible five or 10 years ago, he said.

Though a strong advocate, he does not think a national standard can be imposed.

''What happens is more and more schools see the benefit of it and then they adopt it,'' he said.