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(The fable below will make more sense if you know the following: Last week, New York eighth-graders taking the state’s English Language Arts assessment were subjected to six exam questions based on a bizarre and incomprehensible passage featuring a talking pineapple. State Education Commissioner John King Jr. defended the passage, but said that these questions wouldn’t count. Also last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column calling for value-added assessment in colleges and universities to ensure their accountability to the parents who foot the bill for their children’s schooling. This introduction, gentle reader, is what’s known as content knowledge to support reading comprehension.)

In olden times, pundits, professors and the animals of the forest could speak English just like you and I can. One day, a pundit challenged a professor to a contest. “You, a pundit, have the nerve to challenge me, a professor, to a contest?” the professor asked the pundit. “This must be some kind of joke.”

“No,” said the pundit. “For too long, you professors in your ivory towers have not been accountable to your customers—students and parents. I challenge you to test your students to find out what they are learning, using value-added assessment. There’s a well-known book called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa that uses an assessment called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to demonstrate that most students learn very little in college. I challenge you to develop a voluntary system using the CLA or similar tests, or I will work tirelessly to persuade the federal government to create rewards and punishments based on these assessments, as it has done in the K-12 education system.”

The animals of the forest thought it very strange that a pundit with superficial knowledge of how higher education works would challenge the professor.

“The pundit has some trick up his sleeve,” a moose said.

“That’s possible,” said an owl. “He’s always pictured wearing a shirt and tie, so he definitely has sleeves.”

“Well, you know what I mean,” the moose said. “Higher education in the U.S. is an extraordinarily diverse enterprise, and different institutions have different missions, and enroll students with differing academic backgrounds and motivation.”

“I agree,” said a crow. “The outcomes of higher education cannot be reduced to a single number or a sound-bite. How would we compare the learning of quantum mechanics with the learning of literary criticism? And it’s not clear what a parent would do with the information even if it were available.”

The animals were convinced that the pundit must have a clever plan of some sort, even though a wise soothsayer had predicted the year before that the pundit would propose this kind of empty challenge.

When the contest began, the pundit was inert and didn’t budge. The professor, already pushed by external accrediting agencies to engage in outcomes-based assessment, moved steadily forward.

The animals didn’t eat the pundit; his ideas were seen as indigestible.

The moral: David Brooks wears short-sleeve shirts.

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Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and...

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