08 April, 2017
Each year, millions of students complete their study programs at the colleges and universities across the United States.
The new graduates receive an official piece of paper from their schools. This paper is known as their degree. It states what kind of program the student completed and what field they studied.
But do all degrees have the same value? And do students from all schools studying the same program do the same amount of work? Do they graduate with the same knowledge and ability?
These are all questions that students, parents, politicians and employers may be asking.
These are hard questions to answer. But some are trying to make it easier.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has developed a system of measuring student learning. The system might change how educational performance is measured.
It is called the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education, or VALUE.
Terrel Rhodes is a vice president for the AAC&U. The organization studies all parts of the American higher education system.
Rhodes says that, in the past, people generally believed a college degree meant that a person had a certain amount of knowledge and understanding.
"Historically, there was little question about the quality of the [knowledge] that the students were receiving through their areas of study," Rhodes said. But as the economy became more complex, he continued, "More attention was being paid to more scientific approaches in the measurement of learning."
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education created a report on the American higher education system. The report included changes the system needed to make. It was called "the Spellings Commission," named for the Secretary of Education at the time, Margaret Spellings.
The report said that colleges and universities needed to make it more clear what graduates actually knew and could do beyond what their degrees said.
The researchers suggested creating several measuring systems, including different standardized tests. This would make it easier to show how well individual schools educated their students.
But Rhodes says there are several problems with this method.
For example, a test of multiple-choice questions about a subject can measure how much a student knows about that field. But it does not show how well a student can connect that information to the real world. And, Rhodes says, it fails to show how well a student can think about problems in different ways.
Also, most of the test results are not used to improve student learning. Their main purpose is to inform government officials who provide funding to schools, as well as accrediting agencies.
In addition, the test results might not be correct, Rhodes says. Schools often give students the test near the end of the study programs. Students do not need to do well on these tests to graduate. And schools rarely share the results with students or professors. So students have little reason to try to do their best.
"It [isn't] connected to getting a job. It isn't connected to completing a course or getting a grade. And so we said there needs to be an alternative to that," Rhodes said.
So, in 2008, the Association of American Colleges and Universities began working with professors across the country to create the VALUE system. The system was meant to measure the skills students would need in the professional world. These skills include critical thinking, written communication and problem solving.
The creators of the VALUE system wanted to explore different parts of these skills. They did not want to not simply ask if a student knew the right answer to a given question.
To measure critical thinking, for example, the VALUE system examines how well students can explain issues. It also looks at how well students use evidence to explain their thinking.
The professors created a rubric -- or set of instructions -- for each part of each skill. The rubric measures from one to four. One represents the most basic ability level a college student should have in that skill; four represents the highest ability level.
Schools use the rubric to examine projects and other assignments that students are working on. They do this to see how much certain skills are progressing.
Since 2015, more than 42,000 representatives from more than 4,200 educational organizations have downloaded the VALUE rubrics from the internet.
Rhodes says the AAC&U hopes schools share information from these assessments with professors and students. Students would then see how well their own skills are improving. And professors could make changes to their classes.
Natasha Jankowski is director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. The organization examines tests and assessment in all levels of education. She says the VALUE system is a good way for schools to measure the success of their students.
In the past, many schools only gave standardized tests because it was expected of them. But the VALUE system clearly explains what a graduate of a given school has the ability to do, she says.
"Now our students are in a position to talk about their education differently ... with employers," she said. "Instead of referring to classes that they took, they can talk about the knowledge and skills that they have in ways that they can demonstrate."
I'm Phil Dierking.
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
We want to hear from you. How do colleges and universities in your country measure student learning? How can schools do better to explain to employers what their students can do? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
accrediting - v. saying that something is good enough to be gien credit
alternative - adj. offering or expressing a choice
approach - v. to begin to deal with or think about
assessment - n. the act of assessing something
certain - adj. used to refer to a quality that is noticed but that is difficult to explain or describe
degree - n. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university
grade - n. a number or letter that indicates how a student performed in a class or on a test
graduate - n. a person who has earned a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university
rubric - n. an explanation or a set of instructions at the beginning of a book, a test, etc.
standardized - v. to change things so that they are similar and consistent and agree with rules about what is proper and acceptable