Given the recent upgrade and completion of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) testing across high schools in the state of Texas, it is no surprise that standardized testing at the university level is being discussed.
Fortunately, Neal E. Armstrong, UT’s vice provost for faculty affairs, recently told The New York Times that “[University standardized testing] does not, in my opinion, measure value added very well for our kind of institution. Our freshmen come in with very high aptitude and critical thinking skills.”
At least UT has stated that standardized testing is not a good method for evaluating our school. And for clarification’s sake, by “value added,” Armstrong is addressing the idea of how much value is added by the time they leave college to students’ academic baseline that they have when they come into college. After all, standardized tests are touted as a potential way to finally provide some answers to the question: What does one learn in college?
But I’m not sure that knowledge can be tested. And for more than just the reasons iterated by Armstrong.
The main questions that come to my head concern the purpose of higher education — and I don’t think the answer to that is very clear. Some would argue that the purpose is to get a job. But if that were the case, why doesn’t every degree require internships, apprenticeships and other career preparation activities?
So what about the argument that higher education is meant to teach you to expand your mind and learn new things? If that were the case, why are restrictive core curricula so prevalent? Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently released a program called MITx, which is an online offering of a lot of their normal classes for free to non-MIT students. While this initiative has received applause for its innovation, no one has described the online courses as replacements for the MIT experience. In fact, even MIT does not count completed online MITx coursework toward any kind of degree. So it seems that MIT considers itself as more than just a means by which to take classes to get a degree. Earning the degree requires something else.
I think part of that “something else” that we learn in college is how to graduate from our specific college. I realize that sentence seems obvious, but with graduation one month away, I can honestly say, I’ve learned how to graduate at UT. I’ve learned which classes I can skip, which classes are difficult, which weeks I can go downtown on Thursday nights, which professors I can ask for recommendations from, which apartment complexes have good management, where all the great coffee places are and generally lots of other UT-centric things crucial to graduating here.
But none of those things would be covered on a standardized test. And while I’m sure every university has comparable aspects, they won’t be exactly the same. At UT, I had my first 300-plus person class, and I figured out how to learn in it. I’ve had at least two semesters where there was a glitch with my registration and had to call three different people to fix the problem. Through those experiences, I’ve gained a sense of independence and self-reliance that probably isn’t cultivated at much at smaller schools where administrators can do more administrative hand-holding.
Intuitively, we all know UT is different from other schools; that’s part of why we chose to go here instead of somewhere else. In graduating from UT, I didn’t just learn answers for tests, but I learned how to gain the necessary knowledge for that test in this kind of environment.
And it’s the how that is significantly more important than the what when it comes to finding future jobs, solving future problems and continuing to learn in the future.
For this reason, standardized tests miss the boat completely when it comes to testing what we learn in college both because they make comparisons between totally different environments and because they don’t focus on the important part of higher education in the first place.
Taylor is a Plan II and rhetoric and writing senior.