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How Do You Measure Success?

The technology to link students to life after college is easy; its ultimate use is not

The term “accountability” is showing up more often in education circles. In K-12 in some states, one test score can determine whether students graduate from high school. Consistently poor scores on state tests can lead to an entire faculty being fired or schools closing. Higher education has not been held to such stringent standards, although accrediting organizations and state governments can and do sanction schools and cause programs to be shut down.

Higher ed is soon to be hit with an accountability bill, however, in so far as colleges of education are concerned. This is happening because of a small, little-noticed, but potent part of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, which requires states to outline a plan that will link student achievement data to the students’ teachers and principals and link this information to the in-state programs where the teachers and principals were prepared for credentialing. States must also publically report the data for each credentialing program in the state. And here’s the kicker: Decisions about expanding or sanctioning credentialing programs would be based, to some degree, on the K-12 student performance data.

Could such a system be implemented for other schools or colleges within a university? For colleges of engineering, do you look at the number of bridges that fall down in which graduates had a hand? For medical schools, do you do a cost-benefit analysis on the procedures that alumni physicians order? For business schools, do you look at the accuracy of graduates’ economic forecasts? Maybe you look at alumni CEOs’ business profitability numbers or how many indictments they have for fraud or mismanagement.

At the very least, one could imagine an accountability system in higher ed in which students’ ability to obtain and retain a job—and even the pay of that job—might be linked back to their colleges. (Could this be a new evaluation criterion for US News & World Report?)

The linchpin for K-12 accountability is a statewide data system that connects students to their teachers and their teachers to an in-state credentialing program, which is possible as long as people are tracked by unique identifiers. K-12 state data systems are further along than most in higher education, but the foundation for those higher ed systems—ERP and student information systems—is in place, and campus systems are doing more and more data tracking, including using unique identifiers.

So the technology is easy. The more difficult part is determining the value system behind the technological system. If we’re going to judge a college by the pay levels of its graduates, for example, the question has to be asked: Is salary the most important aspect of a job? What if a job pays well but is a grindingly boring ordeal for the graduate? Or is not using his or her best talents? Is pay, then, a viable measure of how well the college educated the student?

Business management guru Peter Drucker (among others) is credited with saying, “What gets measured gets done.” And that may be true. But what gets measured is not always what is valuable.

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

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