What Will it Measure? That’s the Question!

Alan Kantrow at HBR, on new administrative decisions about education:

What do you think the administration should concentrate on in its educational assessments?

The world over, the performance of colleges is under fire.  It’s about time that happened, but there should also be serious concerns about the new report cards that are being fashioned for tertiary educational institutions.

The Obama Administration in the U.S., for instance, plans to create a new performance-based rating system with teeth.  In future, it says, resources will flow only where tangible student-focused outcomes justify their deployment.  Those outcomes will be, most likely, improved retention and graduation rates; fewer wasted credits; lower student debt-burdens; easier access to financial support; greater efficiency estimated by linking progress to degrees and demonstrations of competency, not to credit hours or seat times; more students hired within a reasonable period after graduation; higher salary levels for them; and so on.

Are these useful measures?  Of course.  Will tracking them prove helpful to college managements?  Of course.  Will knowing them be relevant to students and families?  Of course.

But these are not measures of educational performance; these measure only the efficiency of the educational process.  Think, for a moment, of a college as if it were a factory, a pipeline that takes in raw materials and puts them through a structured series of steps that leads to the creation of  “finished products,” namely well-educated students.  The measurements under discussion are yardsticks of the pipeline’s asset utilization and process efficiency levels.  If we improve them, the “factory” will run better.

However, if colleges use only these metrics to evaluate their performance, they will continue to repeat past errors.  For, they will be measuring virtually everything except the one thing that matters most: Student learning.

Maybe we should concentrate on this, from Scott Neuman:

Adults in the U.S. fall behind many of their developed-world counterparts in such basic areas as math, reading and problem-solving using technology, according to a newly released report authored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies surveyed 166,000 teens and adults ranging in age from 16 to 65 years old in 24 countries.

In each of the main areas, adults in more than a dozen countries, including Japan, Finland, Australia and Canada, consistently scored higher than the United States, which ranked below average or near the bottom in almost every category.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Graham

    This is also important as Christian colleges and seminaries think about how to demonstrate outcomes such as spiritual formation.

  • smurf

    I was a disciple of Dr. Deming and “continuous improvement” back in the 90’s but I get very leery of trying to measure anything that’s not related to making widgets in a mass production setting. Colleges are not factories. Students are not products, nor are they customers. IMHO it takes the rest of a lifetime to figure out the value of the education you got and there are way too many variables to really measure what adds to that value.


  • labreuer

    Apply market forces. Force colleges and universities to provide statistics on their graduates, by program. How many graduate? What are their expected salaries? By what age do they expect to pay off their student loans—break this down by whether or not someone is living with a partner and how many kids they have.

  • Myron Williams

    Any time the Federal government gets involved with areas not assigned by the Constitution there is a bureaucracy which emerges; thus standardization follows rather than focusing on growth of individuals and diversity. This seems to be the current pathway, and if this happens then students in the US will fall farther behind in creativity, problem-solving, and innovation, hard to measure. Yes, assessment is valuable, but the Fed needs to stay out of it.