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Performance-based college measuring must be done correctly

Having been on the front lines of educating at what is essentially an open-enrollment university in Louisiana for the past 15 years, I have great sympathy for goals outlined in the upcoming review of higher education in Louisiana. The fact is, as verified during my year of teaching in Illinois in 2000-01, the skills of the students attending and the quality of education provided at our state universities lag the rest of the country’s. However, one suggestion made to change this well could make matters worse rather than better.

Performance funding, or granting money to universities on the basis of some criteria that presumably captures their performance, in general is a good idea, but policy-makers must be careful when it comes to its actual measurement. With the new plan, campuses will be rewarded for how students perform in the classroom, based on graduation and retention rates, and how they do on exams for certification after they graduate.

The second aspect of that, testing, is a good idea and already is done in some areas such as for education degrees. But if left in isolation, the first part, classroom performance and its resulting ideal product graduation with a degree, will produce the opposite effect just as we’ve seen at the secondary level, i.e. dumbing down instruction and/or grade inflation designed more to get students out the door than to ensure they have a quality education.

Grade inflation increasingly is a problem in Louisiana high schools. Here’s just one bit of anecdotal evidence on this account: when my nephew graduated last year from high school, in a class of over 300, the average GPA of the entire class was slightly over a 3.0 (B) and over a dozen students had a 4.0 (perfect straight A). In contrast, when my wife graduated sixteen years earlier from another area high school with a slightly larger class, she and one other guy had a 4.0 – and it had been a couple of years, and would be a couple of years after, than any other student would achieve that.

Grades have gone up because of TOPS, the state’s program of giving free money for college for students meeting certain grade point averages. Simply, many Louisiana high school teachers are afraid of giving grades that realistically assess a student’s ability because they don’t want to have parents complaining to principals that they are cheating their children out of having a college education paid for. (If you want more proof, even as their GPAs seem to show they are well above average, why is it that Louisiana high school students score well below the national average on the ACT?)

If classroom grades and graduation rates become the only metric by which some college programs are rewarded with funding, the same thing is going to happen. In order to ensure maximum funding, university administrators will pressure faculty members to give away high grades like candy at Christmas, compounding a grade inflation problem that already is rampant among universities nationwide and getting worse. This gamesmanship will do nothing to improve the educational quality of Louisiana college attendees. Indeed, it will encourage lowering standards even below where they are now.

Thus, while performance-based funding is a welcome development in Louisiana higher education, picking the wrong way to measure it not only will not improve the quality of higher education in the state, it will make it worse.

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