A commission within the U.S. Dept. of Education is considering the implementation of a mandatory exit exam for all college and university students.

Chairman Charles Miller of the department’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education said during an early February meeting in San Diego that the nation needed a measurement of college students’ critical thinking, problem solving and written communication skills, according to a transcript of the commission proceedings. The commission has until Aug. 1 to submit a final report of their findings and opinions to the department.

During the meeting, Miller said results of an exit exam would show whether higher education institutions challenged students sufficiently. Currently, the department – as well as tuition-paying students – cannot objectively determine whether funds for colleges and universities are put to good use.

“Accountability means measuring performance – institutional performance of colleges and universities,” Miller said during the meeting. “Without a transparent and accessible information system, public policy is only guessing.”

To garner an educated opinion on the matter, Miller said the commission should examine university accreditation, student learning and institutional performance. He said the commission has yet to discuss the issue of accreditation in depth.

As for student learning, however, in a recent memorandum to the commission Miller wrote about breakthroughs in testing students, such as the recently developed Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) test.

According to the website for the Council for Aid to Education – the nonprofit organization which runs the test – CLA tests the university’s contribution to student learning. Students take a 90-minute test that contains sections on critical analysis and written communication. CLA is being administered as part of a six-year study on up to 50 colleges.

Miller said the CLA evaluates the skills employers look for in job candidates, and thus the proposed exit exam would be modeled after the CLA.

“These are the types of skills claimed to be enhanced by many colleges and universities, and students are likely to want to know if these are the skills being imparted after expenditures of large amounts of life’s time, energy and money,” Miller said.

In addition, Miller said at the meeting that the commission is currently investigating the development of a search engine specifically for information on different colleges and universities. Submitting the name of a college in the search engine would bring up statistics and analysis about the quality of education at the institution.

Miller said the search engine information would be valuable for policy makers, researchers and institutional managers.

When he was a member of the University of Texas (UT) Board of Regents, Miller said, all nine UT campuses implemented standardized tests to evaluate what their students were learning. He said such educational quality assessors, like the proposed exit exam, are helpful and relatively easy to create.

Since its establishment last September, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education has met three times. It is scheduled to meet again April 6 and 7 in Indianapolis, Indiana. A field hearing that includes professional educators is scheduled for March 20 in Boston.

UCSB College of Letters & Sciences Undergraduate Studies Dean Alan Wyner declined to comment on the possibility of a college exit exam, saying he did not know enough about the matter.