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This article originally ran on the editorial pages of the Omaha World-Herald.

Embracing tests UNO should be praised for bucking establishment, scoring well

September 6, 2008

Omaha World-Herald

Watch teachers and academic administrators squirm after politicians say the words "test" and "accountability." Then watch as some brave, capable teachers and administrators step forward and say they want to prove their worth.

Watch the larger number, those who fear the truth, as well as those with elite reputations that make them fear any evidence that might challenge perceptions of the status quo. They tend to lash out first at their own, calling them traitors and teachers of tests.

Then they smack the politicians, who became enemies by representing the good people who want to hold education more accountable in an era of competing tax priorities and tightened wallets. Maybe those parents and students wanted choices.

The topic here isn't school vouchers but the use of testing information – information that holds considerable value to the citizens who pay educators' bills.

Well-designed tests arm parents and students with the tools to hold administrators, teachers and even themselves accountable. No testing method is perfect. But most have more value than many in the learning establishment would lead the public to believe.

A recent example of the value of testing occurred on the vibrant urban campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. UNO, which celebrates its centennial this fall, serves a mixed population of students from poverty and privilege.

Administrators, professors and instructors at UNO still take pride in a mission too few universities value: teaching. So it should surprise no one that administrators looked for a way to measure the academic progress of their students, to measure progress and critical thought.

They turned to the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA. Universities, colleges and community colleges use the CLA to measure internal academic progress, often privately. UNO was so pleased with what it found – students learning – that it shared the results publicly.

As a result, some members of the higher education elite came unglued. An online column written by a respected education expert at Inside Higher Ed (on the Internet at http://www.insidehighered.com) described the hysterical reactions. Nervous elites and projectors of the status quo relayed fears of data misuse or – heaven forbid – institutional accountability.

What they missed is the importance of promotional tools for smaller universities like UNO, those that lack the long-term reputation of a flagship campus or an elite private school. The critics missed the importance of UNO's target audience.

UNO has national reach, but its largest draw is local. Many of its students work at least part-time. It has a healthy, growing reputation with high school students, but it also remains a school for people with competing choices for their money and time. It needs a story to sell.

That's why it rightly provided its potential customers with something they can sink their teeth into: positive results that showed learning taking place.

The test results showed UNO students faring better than even many elite universities at moving students up from their academic levels when they arrived on campus.

But the histrionics of testing opponents – like one from the State University of New York at Binghamton who disdains the implications of being able to compare those test results – eerily echoes the challenges members of the Nebraska Legislature faced when trying to improve Nebraska's former system of no-account tests for kindergarten-through-12th grade education. UNO deserves praise, not scorn.

It is always easier for the defenders of the status quo when those with the power of the purse – voters, taxpayers and tuition spenders – lack easily accessible data before they make decisions. But reliable testing is better for the consumers of education services, for fostering the kind of competition that education needs to prepare 21st-century leaders.

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