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Colleges may get FCAT-like test

Thousands of Florida university students could be required to take standardized tests before graduation under a plan advanced Thursday by higher education leaders.

The intent of the Board of Governors is to tie millions of dollars of state funding to university performance, including how well students are learning.

The board is working on the testing provision, which will be voted on in March. But it approved six measures to evaluate the universities, including the number of minority students enrolled at each school and the amount of research dollars attracted.

The idea is to make Florida's 11 universities accountable in much the same way as Florida's public schools, which are punished or rewarded depending on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

If the testing component is approved, officials said, the state would become the first in the nation to implement a testing program in higher education. A Board of Governor's committee approved a pilot program Thursday with little opposition.

The members said they want to make sure students are learning, not just graduating.

"This issue is not going to go away," said board member Steve Uhlfelder. "It is difficult. But I believe learning assessments need to stay in the discussion."

Education Commissioner Jim Horne, a staunch supporter of the measures, said the board must decide whether the standardized tests should affect a student's ability to graduate.

"It could be tied to promotion or just used as an evaluation tool," he said. "But it should be tied to dollars."

Under the pilot proposal, a test in writing and critical thinking would be given at the end of a student's second year and administered again at the end of the fourth year. In some cases, separate tests in a student's particular field of study, such as chemistry or history, would be given when a student enrolls and again in the fourth year.

University of Florida provost David Colburn said he supports accountability but has reservations about a one-size-fits-all test.

"I'm not sure you can do it in a simple test," he said.

The testing component is being pushed by Uhlfelder, who called for an accountability system when he was a member of the state Board of Regents. The regents were eliminated in 2001 and replaced by the Board of Governors, whose members were appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

"His heart is in the right place," said University of South Florida interim provost Renu Khator, speaking of Uhlfelder. "I'm not opposed to measuring, but this is not the way."

It's unclear how many of the universities would participate in the pilot program next year, but all will be told to submit proposals. Some students take a standardized exam after their second year of college, but most are exempt based on other test scores or grades.

Uhlfelder said he expects about 26,000 students _ or one out of every 10 students in the university system _ to take the new test next year. No one has said how the students would be selected.

Preliminary estimates indicate a test would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to administer. Uhlfelder expects the pilot program to cost about $500,000.

The board will determine which measures are most important at its March meeting and how much money should be tied to each. Under a new state law, 10 percent, or $250-million, of the $2.5-billion the schools will get from the state next year must be tied to accountability.

Howard Rock, a Florida International University professor who sits on the board, opposes a new test. He said he voted for the program in committee because he hopes the state will opt for other measures, such as the Florida bar exam and other licensing tests.

"This would be like high school," he said.

Some worry professors might feel pressured to change the way they teach.

"The students of Florida do not support testing," said Clayton Solomon, the student body president at Florida International University and a student representative on the board. "It's another burden."

University accountability

Here are six of the measures the state will use to evaluate Florida universities. Ten percent of each school's funding will be based on how well they perform in these areas:

+ The number of minority students who enroll and complete undergraduate degrees.

+ The four- and six-year graduation rates for all students, and four-year graduation rates for community college transfer students.

+ The amount of research dollars brought in by faculty.

+ Providing access to higher education.

+ The ability to produce graduates in high-demand fields.

+ Rankings and other national recognition.

The state Board of Governors will vote in March on the plan's most controversial element _ whether to use standardized tests to measure student learning.