WASHINGTON—Looking to extend its education policies into America's colleges and universities, the Bush administration outlined new proposals Tuesday that some higher-education officials fear will lead to standardized testing at the collegiate level and trample on students' privacy.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said sweeping changes were needed to make higher education more affordable, accountable and understandable to Americans who were shelling out tens of thousands of dollars annually to pursue college degrees.
In a speech at the National Press Club, she laid out a series of proposals developed by her Commission on the Future of U.S. Higher Education, which she appointed a year ago. In concept they'd extend to colleges the principles from President Bush's No Child Left Behind program, which seeks greater accountability from America's elementary schools by requiring them to impose standardized tests and publicize their results.
Even before Spellings spoke, several higher-education officials had blasted the proposals, saying they menace student privacy, potentially offer a one-size-fits-all approach to testing and don't sufficiently address student financial aid.
"It seems to me there is an encroachment here to substitute the judgment on higher-education matters that ought to be made by (college) presidents and faculty rather than legislators and commissions," said David L. Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents about 1,000 schools. "There is an ever-increasing reach into the academy."
Seeking to reassure nervous educators, Spellings said the White House had no interest in federalizing the country's 3,706 public and private two-year and four-year institutions. Instead, Spellings said, she wants a transparent system that makes shopping for colleges and universities as easy as shopping for cars.
"And let me be clear: At the end of it we neither envision, nor want, a national system of higher education," Spellings told the audience, largely educators. "On the contrary, one of the greatest assets of our system is its diversity, something we must protect and preserve."
Many academics question the wisdom and motive for perhaps the most controversial proposal from Spellings' commission: a massive database, even one with requisite privacy measures, to track students as they progress on campus.
The tracking process would be similar to the way students from kindergarten through 12th grade are monitored, Spellings said. Information from the database would help illustrate how colleges and universities are performing.
"Information will not only help with decision-making, it will also hold schools accountable for quality," she said. "As the commission wrote: `Higher education must change from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance.' "
Warren and other higher education officials said such a database could intrude on students' privacy.
"They're creating a data system that, if you breach the system, it can track back to the student, that will have everything from the student's life in college, K-through-12 and far beyond," he said.
Spellings also said that America's colleges and universities needed to improve measurements of student performance through testing. The commission's report mentions the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an exam that 134 colleges have used since 2002, and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress as two good gauges of academic progress.
Several colleges and higher education groups say they have no objection to testing if comparisons are made on a peer-school basis. But they fear that the commission is steering toward standardized testing and a uniform comparison of institutions.
Commission member David Ward, the president of the American Council on Education, refused to sign the commission's report, saying it projects a "false sense of crisis" and appears to suggest a "one size fits all approach."
"A drive for such comparisons will inevitably lead to the attempt to adopt a single test," Warren wrote to commission Chairman Charles Miller last month.
Spellings also discussed trying to make college more affordable. But she didn't address the commission's suggestion to increase Pell Grants—the main federal aid for low-income students—to cover at least 70 percent of in-state tuition costs.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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