It’s not how well we take tests, it’s what we can do in the real world

September 18, 2023 Trudy Milburn

Fareed Zakaria was the keynote speaker for the HLC Annual Conference this year in Chicago.  A well-known journalist with his own show on CNN, I recall first being enthralled with his insight from his interviews on Jon Stewart.  While I expected him to provide a speech about the value of liberal education much like his graduation address at Sarah Lawrence, he provided a very current treatise to the thousands of higher education professionals assembled on a Sunday morning to hear him speak.

Two main points struck me about his talk.  The first was his overriding optimism of the value of an American education.  The second was his fear that our race to improve our ranking with other countries’ students on national exams may be jeopardizing that very system.

His argument was based on his research as to why the U.S. has weathered the recent economic collapse (2007-8) far better than other countries. He explained that there are two kinds of meritocracies. One is focused on doing well and taking tests, and the other is focused on teaching students how to problem solve and think creatively. We may not do a great job at teaching students how to take tests in the U.S., but we are great at fostering creative, innovative thinking, and this tends to be a more critical skill for navigating life. In his words,

“I’m not saying it’s okay to do badly on tests, but tests are a very narrow predictor of how well you’ll succeed in life.”

His message resonated well with the core values of higher education. It seemed the audience really appreciated this given that criticisms of higher ed are heard more frequently these days. For example, he mentioned that one of the core ideas of American higher education is to teach students how to love to learn, noting:

“…what we’re really trying to do is educate people for life.”

Listening to his speech, I think one can use the state of affairs he’s outlined to reconsider how we operate within our institutions.  The first is to resist a recent trend towards streamlining student choices and creating a lock-step curriculum that prepares students for careers that already exist.  Instead, perhaps we should continue to offer a wide range of courses from the humanities to the sciences to ensure that students are inspired to connect their learning in multiple ways. As Zakaria discussed, the skills students learn in diverse courses have an impact on industries and the economy as a whole.

Another take-away should be a re-examination of the measurement instruments used in higher education.  The instrument should not dictate what success looks like.  For instance, if global ranking on student knowledge is based on standardized exams, then those exams might dictate what is taught in our schools.  Our global ranking may improve, but the other countries (that are also doing poorly in the ranking) may beat us at creating new, innovative companies and industries.  That loss may translate into the U.S. being less adaptable next time there are major economic changes or shifts.

Whether or not you believe in exams, or curricular choice, Zakaria helped the audience begin this year’s HLC Annual Conference with the idea that new measures of success or changes we might make to our programs can have far reaching, global implications for not just individual institutions, but our system of higher education as a whole. What students are able to do when they graduate is significantly important.  It’s up to those of us in higher education to ensure that students are able to learn skills to enable them to continue to do new and interesting things.

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