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CCHE Quality Indicator System
CU-Boulder fall 2000 submission, for funding 2000-01
Graduation Year Undergraduate Assessment Program

Use of standardized tests


  • Standardized national tests exist for some disciplines in which CU-Boulder awards bachelor's degrees. The Major Field Achievement Tests (MFAT's) published by ETS are one example; the Fundamentals of Engineering exam is another.
  • Some CU-Boulder departments have used exit exams as part of their graduation-year assessments for years, and found them useful. These include mathematics and computer science.
  • No national standardized tests exist in many disciplines in which CU-Boulder awards bachelor's degrees.
  • Even though tests such as the MFAT's are available nationally, ETS records indicate that fewer than five research universities use any of the exams. Therefore comparative results for what CU-Boulder programs consider peer institutions are not available. The results can be useful nevertheless, for monitoring change over time, comparing student performance in several subdisciplines, comparing performance of students with different experiences in the major, and assessing performance relative to absolute standards.
  • Even the best standardized test in the world, perfectly suited to departmental goals and curricula, would not tell a program everything it needs to know to assess its success in helping students and to plan change. A test tells little or nothing about what students want, what they like and don't like, what they have actually done in earning their degrees.
  • CCHE's QIS indicator #16 states that "Nationally normed major field tests should be used whenever available and applicable to the institution's program. If a national normed major field test exists and is being utilized by similar institutions across the United States, an explanation and justification for its non-utilization by the Colorado institution must accompany the materials submitted to the CCHE."
  • In fall 2000 we obtained inspection copies of all MFAT exams, and queried academic programs about their appropriateness and utility.

Rationale of our plan

  • Standardized tests can contribute useful information to an assessment program, and are especially appealing to external agencies such as CCHE.
  • Test results from a representative sample of seniors, once every three years, should yield essentially as much utility as results gathered every year and/or by testing all seniors. Given the psychometric properties of the tests, forty test-takers per program or discipline should be sufficient to yield reliable results.
  • Standardized tests should therefore be used as one part of assessment activities in the academic programs for which they are appropriate. Programs should emphasize use of test results in determining and planning any needed changes.
  • Programs will be assisted in testing by Planning, Budget, and Analysis, a campus-wide administrative unit.

Elements of our plan

  • We will conduct a continuing cycle of standardized tests. Planning, Budget, and Analysis (PBA) will test, or work with departments to test, representative samples of about 40 students per major, rotating through relevant majors on a three-year cycle.
    • Academic programs that wish to test students every year may continue to do so, subject to committee review.
    • Degree programs that find the available tests in their disciplines counterproductive may veto participation. To date we have vetos from history, political science, and strong misgivings from environmental, population, and organismic biology, biochemistry, and applied math. History and political science state that the tests in their areas are based on outmoded models of their disciplines that emphasize "a collection of facts" rather than "interpretation," "critical thinking, and writing."
    • With some 8 to 12 MFAT's deemed appropriate, we would test students in three or four programs per year. This small number would allow PBA to work closely with programs to determine optimal settings for testing - in class, at a required extra session, etc.
    • In departments with over 50 senior majors, PBA would draw representative samples for testing.
  • The cost is estimated at about $6,000 per year exclusive of staff time and any payments to students. Student motivation on these specialized tests is not expected to be an issue.
  • The MFAT's not vetoed, plus the Fundamentals of Engineering for selected engineering majors, are in disciplines graduating about half of CU-Boulder seniors.
  • The first audience for test results is the academic program. Academic programs will be asked to report results in its regular submission, and any departmental use of results, to the AOC.

Graduation Year Undergraduate Assessment Program index

Undergraduate Outcomes Assessment main page

l:\ir\outcomes\misc\ccplan01b_tests.doc 11/15/2000

Last revision 07/02/02

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