Who needs analytic skill? We have football.

Jay Mathews
Columnist January 8, 2012

The college football season is ending with the Bowl Championship Series title game and much debate over junking the BCS system in favor of a playoff series. Even President Obama has spoken out on this vital national issue.

So why can’t we get similarly excited about changing the way we teach college students so that more of them learn? A year ago a remarkable study revealed that 45 percent of undergraduates fail to make significant improvement in analytic skills, complex reasoning and written communication in their first two years of college. After four years, 36 percent have no more than the high school skills they arrived with.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The study was published last January in a book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. They had results from 2,000 students at a representative sample of 24 four-year colleges who took a sophisticated essay examination (no multiple choice questions!) called the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

This massive failure by our expensive, much-praised higher education system got little notice at the time. The Post did better than most. We had a couple of pieces on my colleague Daniel de Vise’s College Inc. blog and a contribution by humor columnist Alexandra Petri.

There has been almost no follow-up. We are too busy with schemes to fix the BCS. Football beats complex reasoning, 2,489 to zero.

Many college and university leaders like it that way. They distrust the Collegiate Learning Assessment, as well as any other attempt to measure what value their institutions add to students’ lives. During the George W. Bush administration, then-education secretary Margaret Spellings suggested assessing how much is learned in college. Higher education leaders denounced the idea. They said what they gave students was too deep and complex to be defined by some test. They acknowledged that some of them cooperated with the Collegiate Learning Assessment and another measure, the National Survey of Student Engagement, but only if they were allowed to keep their results a secret.

So students and their families trying to choose the right colleges and the right courses have little to go on. Kevin Carey, policy director of the Education Sector think tank, noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “There isn’t an independent evaluation process. No standardized tests, no external audits, no publicly available learning evidence of any kind.”

The Collegiate Learning Assessment has its limits. It doesn’t measure how much content — biological concepts, historical background, literary styles — students have learned. When gauging analytical and writing skills, a 2009 study by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education said, it should not be used in student promotion or course placement decisions, but it can provide reliable estimates of how colleges compare in teaching those skills.

The Arum-Roksa study raises other concerns about college life. It found that students studied only about 12 hours a week on average. Most had few courses that demanded intensive writing (20 or more pages a semester) or intensive reading (40 or more pages a week). Those who took such courses showed more improvement on the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

The same easygoing culture rules most of our high schools. Few develop academically challenging cultures that draw in students. When their graduates reach college, many find that they can pass their courses with little work and get a degree. Such students hope job training or graduate school will give them the skills they need for successful working lives.

But who cares? The football bowls are a scandal and must be fixed now. Our sports obsession should resolve the BCS debate. Doing something about college learning will take much longer because, at the moment, we aren’t even talking about it.

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