ERIC Identifier: ED415743
Publication Date: 1997-00-00
Author: Osterlind, Steven J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Higher Education Washington DC.| BBB32577 _ George Washington Univ. Washington
DC. Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
A National Review of Scholastic Achievement in General
Education. How Are We Doing and Why Should We Care? ERIC Digest.
Historically, the American public has accepted
at face value the claims made by colleges and universities about the quality of
postsecondary education (Pascarella and Terenzini 1991). Inquiry into their
academic performance was unnecessary because scholastic rigor and excellence
were tautologous. Recently, however, our conceptions of the postsecondary
experience are changing, incorporating a more cynical and critical perspective.
In consequence, a large number of colleges and universities have instituted
assessment programs aimed at their core courses, their general education
curricula, or their liberal studies programs.
Despite widespread use of outcomes assessment in American higher education,
surprisingly little information is publicly available about what college
students know and what skills they possess. The College Basic Academic Subjects
Examination (College BASE), a first attempt to record nationally the achievement
in general education for our college-level population, addresses this dearth of
information about what collegians know and can do.
WHAT IS COLLEGE BASE, AND WHO WAS TESTED?
College BASE is a
criterion-referenced achievement test focusing on the degree to which students
have mastered particular skills and competencies consistent with the completion
of general education coursework (Osterlind and Merz 1990). Used by 56 colleges
and universities, it includes scores for 74,535 students tested between 1988 and
1993. This very large population of examinees makes College BASE perhaps the
largest study of its kind ever. The sample of institutions and of students
tested within any given campus was not random, but by convenience. Still, by
size alone, this study represents a considerable number of students and
institutions. Unlike other commercially available measures of general education
outcomes, College BASE is, in fact, the only test for college-level audiences to
meet the technical criteria for being "criterion-referenced." While
approximately two-thirds of the items in College BASE assess high-level,
cognitive reasoning skills, the remaining one-third of the items assess
important, factual knowledge (Osterlind and Merz 1990).
College BASE assesses achievement in four subject areas: English,
mathematics, science, and social studies. Subject-area scores are built on
content "clusters," which in turn are based on "skills." For example, English
scores are based on two content clusters: reading and literature, and writing.
Mathematics scores are based on three clusters: general mathematics, algebra,
and geometry. (Calculus is not included as another cluster, because it is not
typically a part of a university's general education curriculum.) Cluster scores
derive from the particular skills inherent to a given subject. For example, the
cluster reading and literature comprises the skills of reading critically,
reading analytically, and understanding literature. In total, the exam includes
four subjects, nine clusters, and 23 skills.
In addition to examining test scores for the population of students
generally, data were also analyzed by subpopulation along four categorical
variables: sex, ethnic heritage, class standing, and age. Each variable has
distinct features that divide it into meaningful units.
WHAT DO COLLEGIANS REALLY KNOW ABOUT GENERAL EDUCATION SUBJECTS?
The findings of the study suggest that wide differences exist
in collegians' achievement in general education and that dissimilitude in
achievement is especially pronounced for particular subpopulations, especially
by race. Two main findings emerge from the first level of data interpretation,
simple mean scores for the four subjects. First, scores in three of the four
subject areas (mathematics, science, and social studies) are very close to each
other and may be interpreted to mean that collegians' global level of
achievement among these areas is about relatively equal. English, however, falls
behind the other areas by several points, representing a truly significant
Throughout all of the area tests, and regardless of whether one looks at data
from the gross subject level or at the more detailed cluster and skill levels,
the sexes differ in achievement. In English, for example, the data clearly show
that females far outperform males. In the three other subjects,
however--mathematics, science, and social studies--males evidently demonstrate
superior knowledge over females. And this trend seems to carry forward into
analysis by cluster and skill level.
Interethnic differences are not consistent. For example, enormous disparity
exists within the Asian population between achievement in mathematics and
achievement in the three other subjects, especially when contrasted to English.
Within the Hispanic subpopulation, social studies scores are significantly
stronger than scores in the other areas. Achievement across subjects is more
uniform for Caucasians than it is for any other ethnic heritage classification,
and it is most dissimilar for Asians/Pacific Islanders.
Most alarming, however, are the findings between and among the race
groupings. In this area, differences are profound and pronounced. In
mathematics, Asian students outperform all other groups, whereas Caucasians'
achievement outstrips all other groups in English, science, and social studies.
Blacks/African Americans lag far behind the achievement of all other ethnic
heritage groups in every area assessed. In some cases, the gap between
Blacks'/African Americans' achievement and the other groups' is so wide it is
more than just alarming. It is frightening.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF COLLEGE BASE? WHAT FURTHER RESEARCH IS CALLED FOR?
The implications of the findings from this study
are many and varied, and include the necessity for special programs for
low-achieving students and more opportunities to extend the collegiate
experience for high achievers. Mostly, however, the findings show the vast
differences within the population of college students. The full report contains
considerable discussion about the significance and implications of the study's
At this point in our history of higher education, it would be worthwhile to
systematically sample the achievement of students who are pursuing formal
postsecondary education in a nationally based research project. These findings
and their interpretations show that achievement in general education among
collegians is a complex and intriguing arena for exploration. Findings and
conclusions are at once disturbing and enlightening. But at least by a national
look at the achievement of college-level students in general education, we begin
to gain insight into evaluating the quality and effectiveness of American higher
Osterlind, S.J., et al. 1990. "College Basic
Academic Subjects Examination, Form LE." Chicago: Riverside.
Osterlind, S.J., and W.R. Merz. 1990. "Technical Manual for College Basic
Academic Subjects Examination." Chicago: Riverside.
Pascarella, E.T., and P.T. Terenzini. 1991. "How College Affects Students:
Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research." San Francisco:
Pike, G.R. 1992. "The Components of Construct Validity: A Comparison of Two
Measures of General Education Outcomes." "Journal of General Education"41:
Project on Strong Foundations for General Education. 1994. "Strong
Foundations: Twelve Principles for Effective General Education Programs."
Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges. ED 367 250. 90 pp.;
Wingspread Group on Higher Education. 1993. "An American Imperative: Higher
Expectations for Higher Education. An Open Letter to Those Concerned about the
American Future." Johnson Foundation. ISBN 0-9639160-0-9.
This ERIC digest is based on a full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report series Volume 25, Number 8, A National Review of Scholastic
Achievement in General Education How Are We Doing and Why Should We Care? by
Steven J. Osterlind.