With neon green and purple chairs in tiered rows, the auditorium in Harvard's science center looks like a stadium theater. But the physics professor at the front of the room, Eric Mazur, takes pains not to behave like a sage on the stage.
Rather than lecture, he flashes questions on a movie-sized screen and asks the roughly 125 students to input their answers in hand-held devices. Then, their responses pour into his computer, and he sees an immediate answer to a question that many professors rarely ask: At $43,655 for tuition, room, and board, are Harvard stu-dents getting their money's worth?
Mazur is a pioneer in a growing movement that sees more aggressive evaluation as a way to transform higher education. Professors like Mazur have been experimenting with the idea for a decade. But over the past two years, an increasing number of colleges and universities, including Harvard, have begun using critical thinking and writing tests to see if their students are learning what they should. And now the federal government is pushing to require all colleges to regularly assess students' progress -- and reveal the results to the public.
The movement could spur some of the biggest changes to higher education in decades. Proponents say it could dramatically improve teaching and give consumers a new measuring stick -- potentially boosting colleges that teach well, and bringing down those that rely on reputation. But the movement, critics say, could also bring the same problems as mandatory testing has to the K-12 world -- a culture of "teaching to the test'' that would undercut the very idea of a liberal education.
"Should everybody be learning the same thing? Should students at MIT be able to learn the same things as students at Williams, at UMass?" said Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts System. Diversity is one of the great things about higher education. I say, Vive la difference."
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education was working with accrediting agencies to design new rules, pushing to require colleges to produce evidence that they're making progress with students and to require accreditors to compare the results of similar schools. Now, many accrediting agencies ask colleges to show how they're measuring students, but not all demand actual data. By Nov. 1, new rules have to be approved, and by July 2008, accrediting agencies must begin implementing the changes. But the effect on colleges, which are accredited every 10 years, would be staggered over time.
The rules are inspired by work of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, a bipartisan panel convened by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Last fall, the commission called on colleges to do a better job of measuring students' academic growth. The commission, chaired by Houston investment banker Charles Miller, former chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, also proposed incentives for colleges and states that collect and publicly report how students do. The government, Miller said, may eventually decide to deny federal funds for research or student aid to a college, even Harvard, if it refused to measure how well its students are doing and reveal results.
"I don't necessarily think a rich powerful university like that should just say, Trust me, and we'll do whatever we want,' '' said Miller.
Charles Eliot, Harvard's president from 1869 to1909, once quipped that the reason Harvard was known as the nation's greatest storehouse of knowledge was that the freshmen bring so much in, and the seniors take away so little." Nearly 100 years later, Harvard and other universities have few ways to prove Eliot wrong.