Monday, September 24, 2007

The New ISI Study: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

By Richard Vedder

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has again administered its 60 question test of knowledge of civic institutions, history and economics to 14,000 college freshman and seniors at 50 institutions. The test is a reasonable, non-ideological multiple choice exam. It is interested in finding out: do college students know much about our collective selves --our heritage, our institutions, key knowledge of our economy? The testing was administered by veteran testing people at the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut.


The good news is that ISI is getting more and more publicity for its "value added" approach --testing students as freshman and seniors. It is starting to offer alternatives to the input-based rankings like those of US News & World Report. And some relatively unknown schools show significant "value added" in terms of knowledge gains from the freshman to senior years.


The bad news is that at no school did seniors taking the test average above 70 percent. The knowledge of American college students about some core information useful in binding us together as a people is very low. Worse, at some of the greatest institutions (e.g., Princeton, Yale, Duke, Cornell, Cal-Berkeley), seniors did poorer on the test than freshmen. Those schools did nothing to improve knowledge of core facts and institutions.


If the ISI results have any validity, Americans are behaving perversely. Per student government subsidies are much greater at schools doing nothing to advance knowledge --Yale and Princeton, for example, than at schools where knowledge is increasing significantly --Eastern Connecticut University being a great illustration. The schools in the bunch with the highest USN&WR rankings showed less than half the value added knowledge on average than the 25 schools with the lowest rankings. Cheaper schools showed more value added than expensive schools. The elite schools buy kids who are good students and bright --but don't instill as much new knowledge in them than the lesser, non-elite schools who take in less able or accomplished students. Americans are buying prestige but not knowledge as they crave the competitive schools.

The ISI results reinforce the need for more efforts to be made to come up with alternatives to the current rankings, rankings based on substance not reputation. And they show that there is reason to question the view that American colleges and universities are teaching the core type of knowledge that is usually part of any general education.

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