The Mirage of Accountability at the University of Texas

Robert Koons

Cross-posted from Minding the Campus:

The Chancellor of the University of Texas system has issued a disappointing response to pressure from the public and Governor Rick Perry for greater accountability on the system’s nine campuses. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa's “Framework for Advancing Excellence,” although approved unanimously by the Regents and praised even by some conservative activists, represents the same educational administrative mindset that has produced decades of spiraling costs and falling standards.

The Plan is packed with words like “action items”, “goals”, “metrics”, and “responsible parties”, all designed to give the casual reader the impression that UT is serious about producing real results. However, when we dig down to the details, we find that all that is being demanded of the System’s bureaucrats is that they go on doing bureaucratic things, like “completing action plans”, “approving tuition policies”, “hiring experts”, “identify strategies,” and so on. The Plan reads like something written, not only by a committee, but by an entire panoply of committees—which is actually the case.

Apart from the unsurprising idea of obtaining more money from donors, there is only one real goal in the entire Plan: a commitment to raise graduation rates.  Is this real accountability? Hardly. Raising graduation rates is precisely the metric that every administrator desires, since administrators, who award the degrees, can raise the graduation rates without improving the system in the slightest. They don’t have to make professors work harder or (more importantly) smarter at teaching. All they have to do is encourage them to drop academic standards still further. If every student earns an A or B in every course, it’s pretty easy to get to a 100% graduation rate, especially if the campuses bribe the students to stay the course with better food, bigger dorm rooms, and fancier swimming pools and recreational facilities. The fundamental problem in American higher education is not that we award too few B.A.s: it is that too few of these degrees correspond to any objective and verifiable standard of competency.

Accountability requires clear and simple goals. Here are two to consider, in place of the Plan’s seventy bullet points: First, each campus shall increase its seniors’ average scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment by 2% each year for the next ten years (controlling for variations in the aptitudes of entering students). Second, for each year of the same period, each campus shall reduce the total instructional cost per student-hour by 3%. We should aim at the eventual elimination of in-state tuition.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment is an independent, disinterested assessment of student learning, developed and managed by a non-profit foundation (www.collegiatelearningassessment.org), which measures high level skills like reading comprehension, analytic writing, reasoning, and creative problem solving. The UT System, to its credit, has contracted with CLA for over a decade to evaluate the skills of seniors. Why not use this respected measure as a way of spurring the System’s administrators and teachers to get serious about improving the quality of teaching and raising academic standards?

But, should we put all of our eggs in the CLA basket? Don’t we need a wider set of measures? I agree. We can follow another proven model of success: the Honours Examinations of Oxford and Cambridge (followed by most British universities). How would these exams differ from existing evaluations? The difference is simple, but crucial: at Oxford and Cambridge, all of the grading of exams is carried out in a “double blind” fashion. The graders don’t know the identities of the exam-takers, and the exam-takers don’t know those of the examiners.

If Texas were to adopt this model, the “Texbridge” examiners wouldn’t know which test-takers come from which campus. The examinations could yield cross-year comparisons by having examiners grade answers to the same or similar questions from different years. All students studying a given subject (like chemistry or economics) at any System campus would be tested simultaneously, soon before graduation, with the exam results included on diplomas and transcripts. The exams would be written and graded by UT System faculty, and they could take any form, including essays. Since we already have the facilities and the faculty, the marginal costs of the exams would be nil. To improve transparency, UT would publish (after the fact) the objectives, grading guidelines, and random samples of exam questions and graded answers.

Oxford publishes each year the “Norrington Table”, ranking the various constituent colleges by exam results in each subject. UT could do the same, revealing which campuses did best in physics, history, management, and so on. UT could also break  down the results by category of student: for example, which campus maximizes the success in biology of students from the second quintile of their high school class? We can then evaluate the quality of the curriculum and the faculty: which courses and which teachers contributed most to students’ success? A Norrington Table would stimulate salutary competition between departments and provide critical information to prospective students and employers. Only with such a reliable and disinterested measure can we possibly hold administrators and faculties accountable in a meaningful way.

Robert C. Koons is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, and the president of NAS's Texas affiliate.

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