The demands on Western universities appear limitless.
Recently, the White House issued a plan
to evaluate American universities according to the value that they offer. Proposals for indicators included the percentage of students receiving Pell grants, tuition fees, scholarships, student debt and graduate employment.
Not so long ago there were proposals
that the US News and World Report's
law school rankings should include the percentage of ethnic minority students.
Meanwhile, at the International Rankings Expert Group conference in London
in June there were calls for universities to be ranked according to their contributions to environmental sustainability
The Universitas 21 rankings
of higher education systems now include a 2% indicator for female academics and 2% for female students.
So universities are to be judged for admitting disadvantaged students, seeing that they, along with others, graduate, making sure that graduates get jobs, making sure that every classroom (well, maybe not in the humanities) is suitably diverse for race, gender and gender-orientation (although perhaps not, one suspects, for religion or politics) and contributing to environmental sustainability. No doubt there will be others: third mission, LGBT friendliness, community engagement, transformativeness? Doing research and providing instruction in disciplines and professions are no longer enough.
Now, The Upshot
blog at the New York Times
has gone further. American colleges and universities are apparently responsible for the limited literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills of the entire population of the USA, whether or not they have been anywhere near a university.
The writer, Kevin Carey, claims that US primary and secondary schools are performing badly compared to their international counterparts. American students do badly on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), tests run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
" (T)he standard negative view of American K-12 schools has been highly influenced by international comparisons. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, periodically administers an exam called PISA to 15-year-olds in 69 countries. While results vary somewhat depending on the subject and grade level, America never looks very good. The same is true of other international tests. In PISA’s math test, the United States battles it out for last place among developed countries, along with Hungary and Lithuania"
There are, as noted by blogger Steve Sailer, substantial variations by race/ethnicity in the 2012 PISA tests
. The average score for the three tests -- mathematics, reading, science -- is 548 for Asian Americans, just below Hong Kong and just ahead of South Korea, 518 for White Americans, the same as Switzerland, 465 for Hispanics, comfortably ahead of Chile and Costa Rica, and 434 for African Americans, well ahead of Brazil and Tunisia. The US education system is doing an excellent job of raising and keeping the skills of African Americans and Hispanics well above the levels of Africa, the Arab World and Latin America. Scores for Whites are comparable to Western Europe and those for Asian Americans to Greater China, except for Shanghai which is, in several respects, a special case.
What American schools have not done is to close the attainment gap between African Americans/Hispanics and Whites/Asians (probably meaning just Northeast Asians). Until the skills gap between Latin America and Africa on the one hand and Germany and Taiwan on the other is closed, this will not be a a unique failing.
The post goes on to observe that Americans think that their higher education system is superior because there are 18 and 19 US universities respectively in the top 25 in the Times Higher Education (THE) and the Shanghai rankings. It does not mention that in the latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings the number goes down to 15.
"International university rankings, moreover, have little to do with education. Instead, they focus on universities as research institutions, using metrics such as the number of Nobel Prize winners on staff and journal articles published. A university could stop enrolling undergraduates with no effect on its score.
We see K-12 schools and colleges differently because we’re looking at two different yardsticks: the academic performance of the whole population of students in one case, the research performance of a small number of institutions in the other."
This is a little inaccurate. It is correct that the Shanghai rankings are entirely research based. The THE rankings, however, do have a cluster of indicators that purport to have something to do with teaching although the connection with undergraduate teaching is tenuous since the teaching reputation survey is concerned with postgraduate supervision and there is an indicator that gives credit for the number of doctoral students compared to undergraduates. But the THE rankings,along with those published by QS, are not exclusively research orientated and there is no evidence that American universities are uniquely deficient in undergraduate teaching.
If a university stopped admitting undergraduate students its score on the THE and QS rankings would rise since it would do better on the staff student ratio indicator. Eventually, when all enrolled undergraduates graduate, it would be removed from the rankings since undergraduate teaching is a requirement for inclusion in these rankings.
Carey continues with a discussion of the results of the PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey, conducted by the OECD.
"Only 18 percent of American adults with bachelor’s degrees score at the top two levels of numeracy, compared with the international average of 24 percent. Over one-third of American bachelor’s degree holders failed to reach Level 3 on the five-level Piaac scale, which means that they cannot perform math-related tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies.” Americans with associate’s and graduate degrees also lag behind their international peers.
American results on the literacy and technology tests were somewhat better, in the sense that they were only mediocre. American adults were eighth from the bottom in literacy, for instance. And recent college graduates look no better than older ones. Among people ages 16 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or better, America ranks 16th out of 24 in numeracy. There is no reason to believe that American colleges are, on average, the best in the world."
It is true that only 18 % of American bachelor degree holders reach numeracy level 4 or 5 on the PIAAC Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey
compared to the OECD average of 24%. If , however, we look at those who reach levels 3* , 4 or 5, American bachelor degree holders do slightly better with 74 %, compared to the international average of 70%.
Looking at all levels of education, it is noticeable that for numeracy, Americans with less than a high school education do badly compared to their OECD counterparts. Nine per cent have reached level 3, 4 or 5 compared with the OECD average of 24%. This 15 point difference increases to 20 points for high school graduates and falls to 17 points for associate degree holders. For bachelor degree holders, Americans are 4 points ahead of the average and 4 points behind for graduate and professional degree holders.
For literacy, America universities are average or slightly better than average. American associate and bachelor degree holders have the same percentage reaching level 4 or 5 -- 14% and 24% -- and graduate and professional schools are slightly ahead -- 33% compared to 32%.
For problem solving in technology-rich environments, Americans lag behind at all levels but the gap between Americans and the OECD average gradually diminishes from 10 points for those with less than a high school education and high school graduates to 6 for those with an associates degree, 4 for those with a bachelor's degree and 3 for those with graduate or professional degrees.
It seems unfair to blame American universities for the limitations of those who have never entered a university or even completed high school.
There is nothing in the PIAAC to suggest that American universities are currently performing worse than the rest of the OECD. They are however lagging behind Japan, Korea, and greater China and this is beginning to be confirmed by the international university rankings.
In any case it is very debatable whether there is anything universities can do override the remorseless effects of demography, social change, immigration and the levelling of primary and secondary education that are steadily eroding the cognitive abilities of the American population.
Even more striking, differences between the US and the rest of the developed world are relatively modest compared with those within the country.
Only 16% of White Americans are at level 4 or 5 for literacy but that is much better than the 3% of Blacks and Hispanics. For numeracy the numbers are 12%, 1% and 2% and for problem solving 8%, 2% and 2%..
US universities are probably on average as good as the rest of the OECD although it could be argued that the advantages of language and money ought to make them much better. But they cannot be held responsible for the general mental abilities of the whole population. That is more much more dependent on demography, migration and social policy.
It is likely that as the assault on competition and selection spreads from primary and secondary schools into the tertiary sector, American universities will slowly decline especially in relation to Northeast Asia.
* Level 3
: "Tasks at this level require the application of number sense and spatial sense; recognising and working with mathematical relationships, patterns, and proportions expressed in verbal or numerical form; and interpreting data and statistics in texts, tables and graphs."