Measuring Up 2006: What Experts Really Think

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Yesterday I was fortunate to attend the press conference for Measuring Up 2006, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s report card on higher education at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Measuring Up provides a report card for each of the 50 states, plus a national overview. In this week’s commentary, I provide a brief look at the findings, but focus most on what the report didn’t say and what the experts did.

The report card is divided into six areas: preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits (e.g., “educational capital”), and student learning. States are “graded” on a scale from A to F (but no E) on their performance in each area. I urge readers to go to the Measuring Up 2006 website to review the complete data and state report cards, but here is the quick and dirty of the report:

Preparation: According to the report, 45 states have improved on more than half the indicators in the preparation category since the early 1990s, although there are still large disparities in preparation by race and income.

Participation: The study found that the nation as a whole has made no significant progress in postsecondary participation in the past 15 years, and that matriculation to the postsecondary sector still varies greatly by race/ethnicity and income.

Affordability: The report makes a point in illustrating how the nation’s colleges and universities have become considerably less affordable since the early 1990s. In fact, the report card “flunked” 43 of 50 states, and no state received an “A” or “B” grade.

Completion: Measuring Up 2006 claims that states have made modest gains in the proportion of students completing degrees and certificates, but that even the “best” performance among states is not impressive.

Benefits: Most states have increased their “educational capital” since the 1990s, as measured by the percentage of the adult population with an earned BA.

Learning: This is a new category that is in a “pilot” stage of the report, and measures student learning. The findings are limited as are the measures. Wait until ’08. Or ’10.

The report itself is well concocted, interesting, and contains easily digestible facts. Personally, I found the remarks made at the press conference, which won’t be found in the pages of the report, much more interesting. So I reserve the remainder of this week’s commentary on what others said, which included a high-level expert panel chaired by former North Carolina Governor and Chair of the National Center, Jim Hunt, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, EPI Board of Director and Dean of Education at the University of Virginia, David Breneman, and several others.

Governor Hunt opened the proceedings suggesting that Measuring Up is all about “doing better,” and that the report card has been responsible, at least in part, for getting states talking and dealing with the problems that face secondary and postsecondary education. Clearly, Measuring Up has certainly done that. When the first report came out in 2000, besides the criticism of a “simplistic” grading rubric for rating states, it filled a void by cataloguing information that could be easily referenced by policymakers, media, and citizens alike. The best thing this report does it make data manageable. We can all quibble about methodology, but when you allow 50 states to basically do their own thing in the area of education, building a national and state report card system that is even remotely useful is a difficult hill to climb. The National Center has done it well.

Following the Governor, Pat Callan, the President of the National Center, correctly surmised that “completion” is the Achilles heel of American higher education. “We are operating a 20th Century system with 21st Century demands,” said Callan, noting that we have not retooled our efforts our worked diligently enough to improve the success of entering students. He offered that the country needs to do revisit our strategies for the GIs following World War II and provide support for low-income and other historically underrepresented students.

Joni Finney, the Center’s Vice President and the Director of the Measuring Up, briefly presented the reports major findings, noting that although states did improve in the preparation of students for higher education, the US is “clearly not in a position to replace the experience of our retiring population.

Margaret Spellings, in her brief comments, conveniently linked the improved preparation to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, although many states were turning that corner with the standards movement in the 1990s. She summed up the report by stating that it had “some cause for concern.”

Dave Breneman of UVa, an economist by trade, reported that, for him, the report reinforced his grim picture of the future. “If anything,” stated Breneman, “things have gotten worse over the last few years. We’ve ensured that those with wealth and privilege continue to have wealth and privilege.” Breneman suggested that he could envision a future where an elite, highly-qualified sector of students from advantaged backgrounds attended the nation’s elite institutions (status quo, really) and a group of middling students attending our regional institutions. However, his final point was the most salient: that the remainder would be “a growing underclass bereft of any real opportunity.” That’s a harsh statement and a warning that we hope our policymakers receive. Paul Lingefelter, the SHEEO executive director, echoed that sentiment: “We’re willing to spend almost anything to educate the most able students,” but that we must look at average students and those with disabilities.”

The biennial reporting from the National Center, intermixed with their occasional reports (all downloadable from their website), keep the issues of preparation, access, and success—our core issues at the Educational Policy Institute—on the minds of federal and state policymakers. With rumor mills turning about the uncertainty of the future of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, I am hopeful that they stick around to keep doing this important work.

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