The Forum | Trusteeship

Verifying Student Growth

June 16, 2015

Public distrust of higher education has grown, as low educational standards are coupled with unmanageable tuition costs. The Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) has properly sought “to provide higher education institutions with feedback on the learning outcomes of their students and which they can use to foster improvement in student learning outcomes.” AHELO draws upon the Council for Aid to Education’s powerful Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure the core collegiate skills of critical thinking, analytic reasoning and written communication, an instrument which ACTA profiled in Are They Learning?  AHELO’s wholesome international initiative, however, which focuses strongly on formative assessments to help schools become more effective, has met ferocious opposition from the American Council on Education (ACE). Partnering with their Canadian counterparts, ACE asserts its preference, “to allow institutions to determine and define what they expect students will achieve and to measure whether they have been successful in doing so.” ACE’s intransigence reveals a major cause of the decline of American higher education, once regarded as the envy of the world. The finding of Academically Adrift that after four years of college 36% of students show little improvement in the areas of critical thinking and reasoning is a natural consequence of the lack of transparency and accountability that ACE seems to support. Bill Gates recently suggested that institutions suffer from a culture that measures the success of colleges based on enrollment, rather than students’ developed skills. He is unquestionably right; it is hard to see how institutions justify tuition hikes and administrative bloat while students fall through the cracks. Kevin Carey, an education policy analyst, writes, “Accountability in American higher education is largely a myth.” Schools should “invest more time and money in gathering information about their performance and make that information publicly available.” So instead of criticizing AHELO, schools should eagerly participate and learn how better to educate their students. And trustees, as Professor Arum stated in a coordinated effort with ACTA, need to ensure that their institutions measure student learning gains and that all students receive a rigorous collegiate education that will prepare them for the challenges of career and community.


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