Grading Higher Education: Beware Pitfalls - InformationWeek
Government // Leadership
01:15 PM
Karen Fasimpaur
Karen Fasimpaur

Grading Higher Education: Beware Pitfalls

Obama administration's plan to tie financial aid to colleges' outcome data may be a system that's built to fail.

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There is a lot of buzz this week about the Obama administration's recent announcements about higher education and plans to tie federal student aid to a federal rating system looking at colleges' tuition rates, percentage of lower-income students, graduation rates and graduate debt.

While the "results focus" of this plan appeals to some, others have concerns about government overreaching and stifling innovation.

My concerns are somewhat different. I've seen how No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and the resulting draconian high-stakes accountability policies have decimated K-12 education.

This era was ushered in with the same motivations of wanting to set high standards, establish measureable goals and improve the lot of disadvantaged students. Ironically, it might be those same disadvantaged students who are now being most left behind.

The accountability era in K-12 has led to a narrow, prescribed curriculum that teaches to the test and in many cases ignores college and career readiness and the real-world skills that an educated citizenry requires. Students are not being served in the way that most teachers feel they should be, schools are being closed, good teachers are being fired (or more often, shifted from one school to another) and the public is left misled about the quality of our educational system.

The truth is that we have good teachers and tremendous resources to educate our students. However, we have a system that isn't tapping into or delivering the best we are capable of. With high-stakes accountability, it is in many regards a system that is built to fail.

[ Progress for Udacity and SJSU: MOOC Math Students Beat On-Campus Pass Rate. ]

I've worked in education for almost 25 years, and at no time prior have I seen things this bad. Teachers and leadership are demoralized. Some of the best teachers are leaving the classroom. Students are being over-tested and forced down a path of rigidly prescribed curriculum, which is causing many to become disengaged. Ultimately, our society will pay some price for this era of high-stakes accountability.

The bigger point is that when analytics are used as the sole measure for high-stakes decisions, bad things result.

No matter how well designed, any numerical measures we select, such as test scores or graduation rates, tell only a part of the story. Sometimes data are impossible to measure with the fidelity required. At the worst, they are simply inaccurate. And all analytics can be gamed. Very often, as has been the case in K-12 education, high stakes tied to analytics cause people to do ill-conceived and even detrimental things in the name of raising the numbers.

As author David Bornstein so eloquently said in his book How to Change the World:

"[We] should remain cautious when embracing numerical assessments. The quest for quantifiable social returns or outcomes has become an obsession in a sector that envies the efficiency of business capital markets. Given this obsession, it is important to remember that numbers have an unfortunate tendency to supersede other kinds of knowing. The human mind is a miracle of subtlety: It can assimilate thousands of pieces of information -- impressions, experiences, intuition -- and produce wonderfully nuanced decisions. Numbers are problematic to the extent that they give the illusion of providing more truth than they actually do. They also favor what is easiest to measure, not what is most important."

The truth is that you can't capture the efficacy of education in a few simple numerical measures, and trying to do so can cause serious harm to our society at large.

Perhaps we should be looking at what the real goal of education is. I would argue that it's not to produce high test scores or high graduation rates. When we tie high stakes to these goals, we incentivize unintended results, such as grade inflation, cheating, social promotion or the transfer out of students who are judged unlikely to achieve preset goals. With the proposed results-oriented focus for higher education, it is not a stretch to imagine a proliferation of low-cost diploma mills that efficiently graduate low-income students without educating them. Are those the "results" we want?

Some feel that the goal of higher education should be the preparation of a career-ready workforce. I would argue that the goal of education is even bigger: To produce engaged citizens capable of critical and creative thought. Regardless of your view on what the ultimate goal of education is, ask yourself what metrics might be used to measure success. Then think through how such metrics might lead to unintended detrimental consequences and if the risk of that is worth the potential reward.

Of course, with Congressional approval required to move this forward, arguing these points might be moot, but it's still worth considering. Let's learn from our past mistakes and not put higher education in the same damaged boat as K-12.

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User Rank: Apprentice
8/30/2013 | 3:18:32 PM
re: Grading Higher Education: Beware Pitfalls
I used to agree with you about the tenure system...but recently I've been rethinking it. This is from a K-12 perspective, where I know teachers who have been taken out of the classroom for speaking their mind about what is good for kids and others who say they couldn't teach in the way they know benefits their kids without the assurance of tenure. With the current state of what K-12 teachers are being demanded to do in the classroom, I'm less sure about this now than I used to be.

Are there other ways to ensure academic freedom and teacher professionalism?
User Rank: Author
8/30/2013 | 2:33:59 PM
re: Grading Higher Education: Beware Pitfalls
I like the article too. And while I agree that holding teachers and schools accountable by just looking at (imperfect) data has its pitfalls, more accountability is still needed. It starts with the tenure system. Friends and family members who are teachers cite too many instances of tenured teachers just phoning it in. Until the can't-be-fired tenure system is modified, all the other stuff is just window dressing.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/30/2013 | 1:18:33 PM
re: Grading Higher Education: Beware Pitfalls
So far, the proposal for higher ed is not to rate professors but to compare schools by what they deliver for students, with some emphasis on earning potential and ability to pay back student loans
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
8/29/2013 | 8:41:10 PM
re: Grading Higher Education: Beware Pitfalls
Great article. Many of the metrics employed by this high-stakes programs not only emphasize the wrong skills, but also turn good teachers into scapegoats that disguise larger, more complex problems.
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