Wednesday, February 4, 2015

WHY IS TESTING STUDENTS AT PURDUE UNIVERSITY SUCH A BIG DEAL?



Harry Targ

The Lafayette Journal and Courier published a guest editorial on February 3, 2015 headlined “Faculty, Stop Stalling on Purdue Testing” co-authored by Andrew Kelly and Frederick Hess.” The two authors work for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Kelly is the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform established in 2013 by AEI. The article asserts that the faculty have let a proposed test of “critical thinking” prepared by the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus “….languish in the faculty’s university senate.”

The opinion piece follows on a flurry of articles in the Lafayette, Indiana  newspaper where Purdue University is located. A lengthy article started on page one about testing for “critical thinking” at Purdue University on Sunday, January 25, 2015 headlined, “Test of Wills, Who Will Give In?” Two days later, after discussion of the issue at the scheduled meeting of the University Senate the paper published another story, also on page one, with the headline “Daniels, Faculty Civil in Meeting.” Daniels refers to former governor Mitch Daniels who is the sitting president of the university.

The articles and the solicited opinion piece from AEI refer to a disagreement some Purdue University faculty were having with a decision reached by President Mitch Daniels, and the Board of Trustees about tests to be given incoming and graduating students measuring critical thinking, reasoning, and the ability to communicate. Presumably these skills could be defined and measured to determine whether a four-year college experience was effective.

At the University Senate meeting the President of the Senate Professor Patty Hart presented a useful summary of what some Purdue faculty and educators elsewhere viewed as problematic about the project and the particular test (the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus) the Board of Trustees was imposing on the university. She identified areas of concern some faculty had about the planned measurement of the impacts of four years of study. These included the lack of clarity about the objectives motivating the exercise, the validity of measurement tools, who among entering students would be the sample and why, and what groups the students would be compared with-students from other universities, young people not attending university, or some other population, and most importantly, how was critical thinking being defined.

Purdue President Daniels, defending the tests, pointed out that an often quoted research project found that 36 percent of students examined demonstrated no change in critical thinking after four years of college study. Other studies, he said, indicated that high percentages of employers were dissatisfied with newly hired students’ skills in reasoning and communication. Despite questions raised by these studies in higher education publications, Daniels said that he and the Board of Trustees were ready to proceed to discover what impacts the four-year Purdue college experience had on young people, or to put it another way, whether college mattered. 

The debate at Purdue University and at many other universities is real, even if not reaching the hyperbolic level of conflict suggested by the local paper. Faculty have concerns about lack of clarity on what is being evaluated, testing costs (ultimately paid by taxpayers, tuition, and faculty and staff salaries), time consumed in taking tests, and profits accrued to corporations in the education business. Three critical additional issues stand out.

First, the debate at Purdue University is about measuring “critical thinking.” There is little discussion of what critical thinking means. Some would suggest appropriately that critical thinking involves developing the capacity to reflect upon the knowledge that is being received. Students should be encouraged to carefully evaluate what they are being taught, even materials found in lectures and textbooks. 

For some educators the ability to decide whether to accept or to challenge received wisdom, using intellectual rigor and evidence, is the essence of critical thinking. And challenge requires a rich and diversified knowledge base. Such a conception of critical thinking might not be reducible to metrics. Testing responses in writing and especially with multiple choice tests may be too narrow to address the fundamental intellectual tools that make up critical thinking.

Second, critical thinking requires historical knowledge, philosophical insights, an aesthetic sensibility, the ability to relate knowledge to human behavior, and a sense of the interconnections between scientific and humanistic world views. The development of a rich tapestry of knowledge and sensitivity to the natural world, society, and culture is very difficult to achieve but it should be the goal of higher education. This high standard may not be easily reducible to measurement of progress.

Finally, and connected to the first and second criteria, the critical thinking that animates the testing programs being imposed on students and faculty at Purdue University is based upon a market model of education. Defenders of the new evaluations refer often to the displeasure of employers with their new college graduate employees. The references to these primary “stakeholders,” driving the demand for tests one assumes, are employers who want the university to produce graduates who can perform particular scientific and technical cognitive and communication tasks. These tasks are important but do not necessarily rise to the level of critical thinking. 

In sum, the establishment of metrics to measure critical thinking may not capture the essence of higher education and this is what has raised concerns of many educators at Purdue University and elsewhere. But the disagreements should not be reduced, as they were in the local newspaper to trivialities about the “test of wills” between the faculty and the President of the university. Nor should the reasoned debates by educators on campus be trumped by conservative Washington think tank advocates claiming that the faculty are “dragging their heels.”

As President Daniels wrote to the faculty in his 2015 New Year message “… our land-grant assignment, and frankly that of any institution claiming to deliver ‘higher education,’ is not limited to the teaching that produces scientific or technical expertise. Our task calls us to produce citizens, men and women who are able to think reflectively and creatively not only at the workplace but also to thrive in those other domains of well-being measured so interestingly by the Gallup-Purdue Index.”

In the long run, the stakes are about what the academic community and society see as the goals of higher education. And that is a discussion that is worth having, allowing for full participation by those most immediately involved in the educational process: faculty and students.