Statements and Letters
Our Students’ Best Work: A Framework
for Accountability Worthy of Our Mission
Also available for purchase or download
On behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities
(AAC&U), we are pleased to present Our Students’
Best Work: A Framework for Accountability Worthy of Our Mission.
This statement, framed and approved by the AAC&U Board
of Directors, is designed to help campuses respond to calls
for greater accountability in ways that strengthen the quality
of student learning in college.
The national dialogue about these issues is becoming intense,
with discussions taking place in statehouses across the country
and in the U.S. Congress. We believe that it is essential
that they focus on the knowledge, skills, and capacities that
are most important for today’s students. They also should
take into account the best campus practices already developed
to advance and assess these outcomes.
Thoughtful and forceful leadership from within the academy
itself on both assessment and accountability is more essential
today than ever. Educational leaders are already doing good
work to define what academic excellence really means in today’s
world. It is vitally important that we build on this foundation
to find improved ways to demonstrate achievement of academic
excellence by students and institutions.
This statement is designed to help colleges and universities
as they continue to improve upon strategies of assessment
and accountability appropriate to their own missions. It also
is intended to assist institutions as they respond to questions
about accountability from both policy makers and members of
the general public.
We hope Our Students’ Best Work will prove useful in
your own campus efforts and we encourage you to share with
AAC&U the promising assessment strategies that you are
developing. We will do our best to disseminate your work throughout
the AAC&U community and among external stakeholders throughout
Elisabeth A. Zinser, Chair of the Board of Directors
Carol Geary Schneider, President
For the past two decades, the Association of American Colleges
and Universities (AAC&U) has repeatedly called for the
academy to take responsibility for assessing the quality of
student learning in college. The vision developed in its 1984
report, Integrity in the College Curriculum, and, most recently,
in its 2002 report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision
for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, contains three
- A clearly articulated, collective conception of the qualities
of a college-educated person
- Intentionality and coherence in educational programs to
cultivate those qualities
- Assessment to determine the extent to which the desired
learning has been achieved
Yet, despite the development over the past two decades of
a veritable “assessment movement,” too many institutions
and programs still are unable to answer legitimate questions
about what their students are learning in college.
The lack of evidence on student learning outcomes has proved
damaging. In the absence of consistent and broad-based leadership
on assessment and accountability from the academy, a politically
popular accountability ideology has swept statehouses across
the country and is capturing the allegiance of many lawmakers
of both major parties. This alternative ideology, in brief,
threatens to shortchange accountability by holding the academy
to standards for students’ higher learning that are
much too low.
While specific accountability proposals from this new source
vary, they have one feature in common. They regard a particular
kind of standardized testing—multiplechoice, “one-best-answer”
tests—as the right way to assess student knowledge and
hold the academy “accountable.” Leaders of the
testing industry encourage enthusiasm for this kind of thinking
by extolling the virtues of their tests.
Interest in mass testing has been fueled nationally by the
No Child Left Behind law that mandates school testing in multiple
grades. Schools that do not measure up on the chosen tests
face serious consequences. While it is certainly a major step
forward to hold the schools accountable for all students’
academic achievement, knowledgeable researchers have pointed
to multiple problems with the state tests being used at various
levels, including in high schools. For example, many state
high school tests still focus only on easy-to-measure factual
knowledge and reactive answers (Achieve 2002), rather than
higher-order abilities such as critical thinking, evidence-based
reasoning, integrative thinking, and problem solving.Most
of the state tests evaluate only a ninth- or tenth-grade level
of achievement (Achieve 2004).
Ignoring these problems, many policy makers now want to use
the same logic and make a similar form of mass testing the
focus of accountability in higher education. This would be
an enormous misuse of time and scarce resources. It is the
wrong approach to the challenge of holding higher education
Students study at the college level in hundreds of different
academic departments and programs. These programs reflect
very different communities of inquiry and practice. The kind
of tests being used for school assessment cannot begin to
probe the distinctive forms of excellence expected across
this multitude of different fields.
Assessing what students have learned in colleges and universities
requires a sophisticated understanding both of context and
of how knowledge and skills are to be used. Students typically
do their best and most advanced work in their major fields
of specialization, and they should be held accountable for
knowledge and skills that are deemed essential at an advanced
level, whether the field is physics, psychology, or pharmacy.
What is regarded as excellent writing in chemistry, for example,
because of its direct, descriptive, and succinct language,
is very different from the well-told analytical narrative
in history or the evidence-based scan of policy alternatives
appropriate to public administration. A common test of communication
skills cannot probe students’ highest skill level, because
advanced skill takes different forms in different fields.
Professional fields such as law and medicine do not test educational
accomplishments with the same generic test, and undergraduate
institutions should not do so either.
This does not mean educators and educational institutions
should be exempt from accountability. Rather, accountability
for the highest standards of learning calls for new forms
of critical inquiry and reflective practice—forms that
are both appropriate to higher education’s mission and
feasible in the contemporary academy.
There is considerable promise in tests now being developed
that give students a small library of new materials related
to a problem in a particular domain (e.g., the social sciences)
and ask them both to assess the quality of the evidence and
to write complex answers to questions based on the evidence
(taking into account its limitations). Measures such as these
come significantly closer to life’s real challenges
and therefore are more appropriate as assessments of college
Such tests are not yet widely available. Eventually, they
may complement discipline-centered assessments by providing
evidence of students’ abilities to apply both knowledge
and analytical skills in domains of learning such as the natural
sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. But even
if better tests emerge, standardized tests alone are an inadequate
and inappropriate strategy to foster advanced learning and
accountability in higher education.
What Is to Be Done?
AAC&U affirms that accountability is essential, but that
the form it takes must be worthy of our mission. This means
we must hold ourselves accountable for assessing our students’
best work, not generic skills and not introductory levels
of learning. Any accountability framework must first, of course,
respect the diversity of institutional missions and students’
educational goals in the contemporary academy. The framework
suggested below is designed to accommodate differences in
institutional mission while still holding higher education
institutions accountable for a set of key learning outcomes
that all college graduates should achieve regardless of their
field of study or choice of institution.
The first step is to establish clarity about the kinds of
learning that make a difference for all college graduates
over time: as thoughtful people, as participants in the economy,
and as citizens.
AAC&U’s more than 1100 college and university members
represent the spectrum of postsecondary institutions: two-year
and four-year; public and private; large and small. All are
committed to ensuring that every student experiences the benefits—intellectual,
economic, civic, social, and intercultural—of a well-designed
and intellectually challenging liberal education.
Liberal education, as a respected educational tradition,
has guided U.S. colleges and universities to unrivaled, world-class
standing. Any tradition with deep historical roots necessarily
adapts to reflect the many social, economic, cultural, and
technological changes that occur over the years. Consider
two examples. In the nineteenth century, liberal education
primarily served young men who were preparing for leadership
positions, often in the clergy, medicine, and law. Now, liberal
education aims to be inclusive and to provide an empowering
education to widely diverse students. In the twentieth century,
many came to contrast liberal education with professional
educa-tion and to regard it as, by definition, not “practical.”
But in today’s knowledge-based economy, a good liberal
education embraces science and new technologies, hands-on
research, global knowledge, teamwork, cross-cultural learning,
active engagement with the world beyond the academy, and a
commitment to lifelong learning, as well as the acquisition
of knowledge and skills.
These forms of learning provide a strong foundation for success
in a dynamic economy. They are also essential as a foundation
for civic participation and for a meaningful life.
The opposite of liberal education is narrow, situation-specific
training. While situation-specific training has many good
uses, by itself it is insufficient preparation for a world
characterized by complexity, conflicting judgments, and accelerating
change. Even students in technical fields, therefore, need
and deserve the complementary benefits of a liberal education
to help them make sense of the social and environmental contexts
in which they will use their skills, and to prepare them for
lifelong work rather than just an initial job.
In short, a contemporary liberal education rests on a vital
historic tradition and reflects current realities. New frameworks
for educational accountability should focus on students’
high level of achievement in the college outcomes that characterize
a liberal education.
Focusing on Key Educational Outcomes
The public has questions about the quality of education that
colleges and universities are providing, and it deserves to
know how well students are doing. It is time for leaders of
education to embrace a small number of highly valued and widely
affirmed educational goals, establish high standards for each,
and assess their achievement across the curriculum.
AAC&U has summarized several aims of undergraduate liberal
education in its 2002 report, Greater Expectations: ANew Vision
for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. We propose selecting
from them five key outcomes as a concentrated focus for assessment.
In brief, the outcomes we propose are:
- strong analytical, communication, quantitative, and information
skills— achieved and demonstrated through learning
in a range of fields, settings, and media, and through advanced
studies in one or more areas of concentration;
- deep understanding of and hands-on experience with the
inquiry practices of disciplines that explore the natural,
social, and cultural realms—achieved and demonstrated
through studies that build conceptual knowledge by engaging
learners in concepts and modes of inquiry that are basic
to the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and
- intercultural knowledge and collaborative problem-solving
skills—achieved and demonstrated in a variety of collaborative
contexts (classroom, communitybased, international, and
online) that prepare students both for democratic citizenship
and for work;
- a proactive sense of responsibility for individual, civic,
and social choices— achieved and demonstrated through
forms of learning that connect knowledge, skills, values,
and public action, and through reflection on students’
own roles and responsibilities in social and civic contexts;
- habits of mind that foster integrative thinking and the
ability to transfer skills and knowledge from one setting
to another—achieved and demonstrated through advanced
research and/or creative projects in which students take
the primary responsibility for framing questions, carrying
out an analysis, and producing work of substantial complexity
These outcomes for student learning are not arbitrarily chosen.
Rather, there is an emerging consensus across many professions,
the business community, civic leadership, and the academy
that these liberal education capabilities are valuable for
work, citizenship, and a satisfying life.
In a recent comparison of their standards for accreditation,
for example, leaders from several professions, the regional
accreditation organizations, industry, and educational associations
discovered that they all viewed the outcomes listed above
as integral aspects of a good education and, in the case of
the professions, of preparation for business, education, engineering,
and nursing (AAC&U 2004).
These outcomes are valuable, it is now widely agreed, because
they prepare students to bring knowledge, experience, and
reflective judgment to the complexity of the contemporary
world. They give graduates a strong foundation to deal with
issues that are challenging, unscripted, and often vigorously
contested. They teach students to find and evaluate evidence
and to take into account competing perspectives as they form
judgments about significant questions. They help develop both
a respect for the value of human diversity and a set of internal
values that serve as a compass in an era of accelerating change.
Cultivating and Assessing Liberal Education Outcomes
In proposing this focus for accountability, we offer the
following guiding principles:
- These outcomes do not emerge from taking only one or two
relevant courses. Rather, these are complex capabilities
which are appropriately cultivated from school through the
final year of college, at increasingly higher levels of
challenge and expected accomplishment.
- There are many ways of fostering these outcomes for today’s
diverse students and academic institutions. AAC&U does
not endorse a “one-size-fits-all” approach to
college learning or its assessment.
- College education should help all students achieve the
array of liberal education outcomes described above, whatever
their particular areas of study or major field(s).
- These liberal education outcomes will reach their highest
level of cultivation in the context of the student’s
area of specialization or major field(s), where advanced
achievement appropriately takes different forms.
In other words, even though the outcomes characteristic of
liberal education can be described generally, they must be
cultivated and assessed in context. Analytical skill, for
example, has one kind of applied meaning for an English major,
and a quite different kind of applied meaning for an engineer.
Similarly, the civic, social, or intercultural questions faced
by a student preparing for teaching are likely to be very
different from those encountered by a student studying economics
These insights point toward a curricular strategy for educational
accountability, rather than a reliance on standardized and
generic testing. The previously listed outcomes of liberal
learning should be addressed and cultivated throughout the
entire educational experience. Whatever the field of study,
therefore, a student’s progress in achieving liberal
education outcomes ought to be assessed periodically from
the initial to the final year, in both general education and
the chosen major field(s).
Within the college or university context, a comprehensive
accountability and assessment framework should include the
- Orientation should be provided for the
student during the first year about the institution’s
expectations for important learning outcomes, and a diagnostic
assessment of each student’s demonstrated accomplishment
and expected further progress in relation to these outcomes
should be made.
- A plan of study, constructed with the
student’s advisor, should transparently connect the
expected outcomes to the student’s choice of courses
and major field(s).
- Milestone assessments as students progress
in their studies in both general education and the major
should be tied to key outcomes with timely feedback to the
student and his or her advisor. These assessments should
be aligned between two-year and four-year campuses so that
successful transfers are possible, and they can be compiled
in a portfolio that demonstrates each student’s progress.
- Capstone or culminating experiences in
the major field(s) allow students to actively demonstrate
their cumulative accomplishments in liberal education. The
capstone is a critical element of this framework because
it provides a designated place in the regular curriculum
where students do their best work. It should be conceived
as both a culminating integrative experience and as the
centerpiece of the effort to assess sophisticated learning.
An important foundation for this approach to accountability
has already been laid at many colleges and universities. The
National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) reports that
58 percent of college seniors currently are expected to complete
a capstone or culminating experience of some kind (NSSE 2003).
Typically, capstones are completed in the student’s
major field, although some institutions require capstone experiences
in general education as well.
Many other institutions and programs already require students
to compile portfolios of their work as a requirement for graduation.
Experiments are underway across the country to put such portfolios
Capstone projects and portfolios provide promising anchors
for a meaningful approach to educational accountability. They
provide contexts in which student work can be assessed for
the crosscutting outcomes of liberal education described above
as well as for conceptual knowledge and skills appropriate
to the students’ selected major(s).
In some cases, assignments for portfolios and capstones may
need redesign to encompass the array of important liberal
education outcomes. In other cases, the primary change needed
will be a fuller reading of the available evidence on student’s
cumulative achievement of the key liberal education outcomes.
For every institution, the first accountability questions
that should be asked are these:
- Are all students expected to produce advanced, culminating
- Is this culminating work assessed for broad liberal education
outcomes as well as knowledge relevant to the specific field?
- Have standards been established and made public for what
is expected at this advanced level in each program?
- Are examples of this advanced work and the related standards
regularly peer reviewed in the context of accreditation?
- Have milestone assessments been established that prepare
students to meet advanced standards and, where relevant,
to plan for successful transfer from one institution to
- Does the curriculum effectively prepare students to meet
the standards that will be expected in milestone and culminating
Summarizing Results and Reporting to the Public
In the current climate it is not enough for an institution
to assess its students in ways that are grounded in the curriculum;
colleges and universities also must provide useful knowledge
to the public about goals, standards, accountability practices,
and the quality of student learning. Common rubrics will be
needed to summarize levels of student achievement across different
academic fields and institutions and for particular groups
But here again, much progress has been made. The National
Assessment of Educational Progress grades student achievement
in four levels: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic.
On each of the five outcomes that we propose as the heart
of college-level learning, these four levels can be described
in concrete terms and in enough detail that they can be reliably
scored. Faculty members responsible for milestone and capstone
assessments can be trained to judge the level of each student’s
achievement on each of the five expected liberal education
outcomes and on their accomplishment in their chosen fields.
A summary report to an accreditation body, a state official,
or the general public can be prepared that aggregates the
data across the institution. Because it may include results
from many students majoring in different disciplines, a summary
report can include examples to illustrate the larger meaning
of its results.
Like standardized testing, this method will allow for summarizing
the outcomes of student learning with a few scores. But unlike
tests based on quick responses to multiple-choice questions,
these will be summaries of higher-order skills such as communication,
analytic ability, and integration of knowledge, and will reflect
meaningful educational projects judged by professionals.
Also, when the data are available, each campus can take steps
to engage faculty and students in interpreting the meaning
and implications of assessment outcomes. Faculty members should
use the findings as a basis for discussion and a catalyst
for needed changes in the academic programs.
Ten Recommendations for a New Accountability
- Make Liberal Education the New Standard of Excellence
for All Students Liberal education should become
the new standard of excellence for all students, whatever
their major or anticipated career. Five key liberal education
outcomes were noted above, and a more comprehensive set
of learning outcomes may be found in Greater Expectations:
ANew Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. These
outcomes are important indicators of what students need
to accomplish as citizens, as workers in a particular profession
or field, and as thoughtful, creative, responsible human
- Articulate Locally Owned Goals for Student Learning
Outcomes Clarity about essential learning outcomes
is the foundation of both a robust educational program and
an accountability framework. For higher education to be
accountable for liberal education outcomes, individual institutions
(and systems) must translate these outcomes into goals and
language that are meaningful in local contexts. Goals for
student accomplishment should be developed and articulated
in dialogues that include both faculty members and members
of the wider community. To meet the highest standards of
excellence, campus (and system) goals for student learning
should be challenging, public, and evaluated.
- Set Standards in Each Goal Area for Basic, Proficient,
and Advanced Performance Levels of performance
should be specified in concrete and detailed ways so that
student work can bereviewed and judged similarly by different
individuals. One of the important benefits of having clearly
described goals and levels of achievement is that students
themselves will begin to understand the standards for quality
in different fields and become more capable of assessing
their own learning. Another benefit is that complementary
expectations for assessments in the second and final years
of college will help students in two-year colleges meet
local standards, while anticipating more advanced standards
should they elect to transfer.
- Develop Clear and Complementary Responsibilities
between General Education and Departmental Programs for
Liberal Education Outcomes It does little good
to agree on valued goals for students if responsibility
for cultivating them is not fixed. Similarly, the usual
assignment of responsibility for general education goals
to one group of faculty, typically in the liberal arts and
sciences, and for specialized program goals to another group
of faculty members in departmental programs, virtually guarantees
a fragmented education. It is far better for students to
experience their general education and major as integrated
and coherent. Although specific responsibility may be assigned,
it is best if there is discussion and understanding among
faculty about what is expected in both parts of the curriculum,
if students are encouraged to make connections between courses,
and if advanced courses intentionally build on prior work.
- Charge Departments with Responsibility for the
Level and Quality of Students’ Most Advanced Work Once goals for student learning have been articulated
at the campus level (and, in public higher education, at
a system level), they should be translated into program-specific
goals for student accomplishment. Goals should be set for
general education in ways that respect an individual campus
program’s particular aims, design, and character.
In addition, student learning goals should be articulated
within the context of academic majors. For example, while
the campus as a whole may hold all students accountable
for analysis, communication, and intercultural knowledge,
these expectations will and should have different implications
for specific departments and programs. Each department should
translate campus-wide goals for liberal education into goals
appropriate to the field. Departments also should articulate
field-specific goals for their majors. Each department should
communicate how and why these standards contribute to effective
accomplishment in that field.
- Create Milestone Assessments across the Curriculum
Assessments of student progress in achieving goals should
be built into the ongoing curriculum and embedded in designated
courses or assignments in both general education and departmental
majors. Assessment of student progress over time requires
that campuses distinguish among advanced, proficient, basic,
and below basic levels in relation to specific goals. Students
should be taught to gauge their progress against high expectations
for their most advanced work. No student should learn for
the first time about shortfalls in meeting proficiency standards
at the point of graduation.
- Set Clear Expectations for Culminating Work Performed
at a High Level of Accomplishment
Each department should identify expected proficiency standards
and culminating work—encompassing liberal education
and specialized outcomes— that will both cultivate
advanced knowledge and skill and demonstrate students’
cumulative learning. Culminating work may include research
projects, supervised internships, capstone courses, public
performances, licensure, or other validated tests in a field,
and/or cumulative portfolios providing examples of student
achievement in relation to specific goals.
- Provide Periodic External Review and Validation
of Assessment Practices and Standards
There should be periodic evaluation by external reviewers
of the goals, the proficiency standards, and work samples
submitted by students to meet standards. Such external reviews
provide validation of both the goals and standards. A representative
sample of student performances in different fields will
provide sufficient evidence for external feedback.
- Make Assessment Findings Part of a Campus-wide
Commitment to Faculty Inquiry and Educational Improvement
Accountability efforts should be part of a continuous engagement
with the quality of students’ actual achievement in
relation to important educational goals. Each campus and
department should review the quality and level of
students’ best work, and seek ways to ensure that
the curriculum provides
repeated opportunities for students to practice and reach
of learning. Campus reward systems should incorporate the
faculty members’ intellectual and professional leadership
in both assessment and educational improvement.
- Provide Public Accountability and Transparency
Each college and university should make public on its Web
site: a. General and departmental goals for student learning
b. Proficiency expectations for rating levels of student
achievement in relation to these goals c. A description
of the kinds and range of performances that are used in
assessing student progress (with links to different programs
and departments) d. A report on student achievement levels
(e.g., advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic) in
relation to each goal ensure that the curriculum provides
repeated opportunities for students to practice and reach
expected levels of learning. Campus reward systems should
incorporate the importance of faculty members’ intellectual
and professional leadership in both assessment and educational
For purposes of publicity and comparison, a campus may translate
department-specific assessments back into general categories
(e.g., 75 percent of the students in the college of arts and
sciences met a proficient standard for analytical skill and
collaborative problem-solving). The institution should also
make public its procedures for reviewing and validating assessment
practices, standards, and findings.
These recommendations are offered as guidelines for institutions
of all sorts working to demonstrate the level of student achievement
of key outcomes of liberal education and to respond with integrity
to calls for greater accountability.
- American Council on Education. 2004. Public accountability
for student learning in higher education: Issues and options.Washington,
This position paper from the Business-Higher Education Forum
provides a comprehensive explanatory framework for issues
of accountability for student learning in higher education.
It provides a discussion of the reasons for the heightened
demand for evidence about performance in higher education
and a description of various approaches to learning assessments,
institutional performance review, and quality review in
higher education. It also includes a set of recommendations
for design principles for a public accountability structure
appropriate to the diverse system of American higher education.
- Association of American Colleges and Universities.
2002. Peer Review, 4 (Winter/Spring).
This special issue of Peer Review, “Value Added Assessment
of Liberal Education,” highlights an initiative of
the RAND Corporation’s Council for Aid to Education’s
Value Added Assessment Initiative (now called the College
Learning Assessment Initiative). This initiative is a long-term
project developing sophisticated assessment tools to measure
the quality of undergraduate learning in America at the
institutional level. This issue features articles summarizing
the aims of the initiative and the importance of developing
value added assessment measurement tools to raise the level
of student accomplishment. It features both a review of
the literature and the advantages and disadvantages of current
approaches to assessing higher education quality.
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
On its Web site, the Middle States regional accrediting
association provides many useful resources and publications
on assessment and accreditation. See www.msache.org.
- Palomba, Catherine A., and Trudy W. Banta. 1999.
Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing, and improving
assessment in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
This volume presents an overview of widely used assessment
practices and provides a useful introduction to how assessment
is currently being accomplished on college campuses today.
- State Higher Education Executive Officers, National
Commission on Accountability in Higher Education. The National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education
was organized by the national association of State Higher
Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) to reflect on the state
of American higher education, the states, and the nation
in articulating priorities and assessing and improving performance
in higher education; to articulate significant lessons and
observations gleaned from the collective experience of institutions
across the country; and to recommend principles and practices
to help institutions, states, and the nation make continuous
progress toward our shared goals for higher education. A
report is planned for release in 2005.
Achieve, Inc. 2004. Do graduation tests measure up? Acloser
look at state high school exit exams.Washington, DC: Achieve,
Achieve, Inc. 2002. Staying the course: Standards-based reform
in America’s schools: Progress and prospects.Washington,
DC: Achieve, Inc.
Association of American Colleges. 1985. Integrity in the
college curriculum.Washington, DC: AAC.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2002.
Greater expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation
goes to college.Washington, DC: AAC&U.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2004.
Taking responsibility for the quality of the baccalaureate
degree.Washington, DC: AAC&U.
National Survey of Student Engagement. 2003. Converting data
into action: Expanding the boundaries of institutional improvement.
Bloomington, IN: NSSE.