Education Secretary William J. Bennett said today he is moving to require the nation's colleges and universities to begin documenting student achievement, a rare effort by the federal government to make institutions guarantee the quality of education by systematically measuring how much students are learning.

Bennett, a frequent critic of higher education on the issues of quality and cost, said institutions could be denied accreditation, which could be financially devastating for them, unless they prove that students are achieving specific goals. Among the goals that could be considered, he said, are progress toward a degree, adequate performance on standardized tests or placement in jobs.

The requirement, which will be proposed in the Federal Register this week, would affect as many as 9,000 institutions, including profit-making trade schools in addition to 3,300 traditional colleges, universities and community colleges. Accreditation generally is required in order to receive federal assistance, including financial aid for students.

"This is a major tidal change in higher education," said C. Ronald Kimberling, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, in announcing the proposed rule change. Without measurements to assess whether students are learning, "quality in education is meaningless . . . Diplomas shouldn't be handed out."

For some institutions, the new rules would mean more rigorous record-keeping and compilation of existing measurements, such as test scores. At others, they could stimulate much more sweeping changes, including new tests or graduation requirements.

While the federal government plays no direct role in accrediting institutions, it has the legal authority to recognize the dozens of nongovernmental accreditation agencies. The rule change would deny recognition to accrediting agencies that do not require institutions to document student achievement as a condition for accreditation.

The public has 45 days to comment on the proposed regulations, which would amend rules governing accreditation agencies. Department officials said they expect some version of the new rules to be in place by early next year.

The proposals are offered at a time of intense interest on college campuses in "assessment," the idea that institutions should move beyond grade-point averages and introduce systematic, consistent ways to measure whether students are learning. In a recent American Council on Education survey, three-quarters of college administrators said they were considering new ways to measure student achievement.

While the new rules are likely to push forward the trend, educators and accreditors said they have been working voluntarily to improve assessment for several years.

"There has been major movement toward outcomes for some time," said Marjorie Peace Lenn, director of professional services at the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation, which represents the academic community and recognizes accrediting bodies. "I'm not sure this is going to be the catalyst as much as it emphasizes what is already transpiring."

While there is widespread support for assessment, the issue is not without controversy, much of it centered on which measurements accurately reflect student progress. There is strong resistance to a national standardized test, and administrators worry that their institutions will be compared unfairly to other, dissimilar institutions.

The proposed regulations do not specify what measurement tools the institutions must use, but Education Department officials suggested that written or standardized tests, student projects, such as a senior thesis, oral examinations and performance on state-mandated certification tests, such as those required for nurses, could be acceptable.

"Traditionally, accrediting agencies have looked at inputs -- how many books are in the library and how many faculty members have Ph.D.s," Bennett said in a statement. "But the focus should also be on outcomes, or student achievement -- what students actually learn."

Officials said the regulations are aimed in part at stemming problems at profit-making trade schools, which train beauticians, secretaries, mechanics and a range of other workers. Some of the so-called proprietary schools, whose students receive more than 20 percent of the federal grant money for low-income students, have been accused of poor management, accepting students with little chance of completion or publishing misleading statistics about how many students complete the training and are placed in jobs.

The new rules would include a number of student consumer protections, requiring accrediting agencies to ensure that institutions are truthful about costs, refund policies and graduation requirements, for example.

Schools that have been denied accreditation by one agency could not be recognized by another accrediting body for a year. Accrediting agencies would have to instruct institutions to counsel or test students who want to enroll without finishing high school.

Department officials said they began appraising the accreditation process after a congressional hearing on the subject last year, when Bennett urged postsecondary institutions to "do a more conscientious job of stating their goals, of gauging their own success in relation to those goals and of making their results available to everyone."