Mass. to track colleges’ success via student achievement

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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The state Board of Higher Education approved a plan yesterday to overhaul the way public colleges and universities in Massachusetts measure and report student achievement, in an effort to ensure that students from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds are being served.

In a meeting at Holyoke Community College, 11 of the 12 board members voted for the plan, called the Vision Project, which higher education commissioner Richard Freeland developed with the presidents of the state’s 29 public colleges, universities, and community colleges. The goal, he said, is to push Massachusetts to become a national leader in public higher education and help drive the economic well-being of the state.

Under the plan, the state will issue an annual report documenting Massachusetts’ standing in comparison with other states on a set of seven key academic achievement measures.

The measures are: college-going rates of high school graduates; college graduation and student-success rates; numbers of graduates in key areas of workforce needs such as nursing and engineering; student achievement on campus-level and national assessments of learning; progress in closing gaps in achievement between students from different demographic groups; research spending levels; and level of licensing income.

“People have asked me the question, ‘Can we really set such high aspirational goals given the financial crisis of the state?’ ’’ Freeland said in a phone interview after the meeting. “My response has been, at times of financial difficulty, it becomes even more critical that public higher education aspire to excellence. The pathway to long-term economic strength for Massachusetts lies in public education.’’

One board member, Mary-Elizabeth Beach, superintendent of Ware public schools, abstained from voting after questioning whether public higher education should be held accountable for the college-going rates of high school students.

Beach, who supports the Vision Project’s overall goals, said she had some reservations because of the limited communication between the higher education sector and K-12 superintendents and high school principals about getting more students into college.

“I really feel this is so important,’’ Beach said in a phone interview. “If we’re going to do this in partnership and get kids ready for college, people need to have that conversation about what high schools have to accomplish.’’

The plan reflects a national push toward more accountability in higher education amid concerns that the United States is losing ground competitively. While colleges already collect reams of data each year, this will be the first time those indicators are tied to the state’s economic needs.

Massachusetts is among the first states to develop such an accountability system.

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