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The following letter was sent to members of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education on March 14, 2006.  Excerpts from this letter will appear in The Chronicle of Higher Education on April 14, 2006. 

March 14, 2006

Members of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education
Charles Miller, Chair
121 N. Post Oak Lane, #2606
Houston, TX 77024

Dear Colleagues,

This letter is written on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Association of American College and Universities (AAC&U). We have been keenly interested in two of your key themes: quality and accountability. Drawing on our extensive work with nearly 1100 member colleges and universities, we write now to suggest an approach to accountability that would significantly enhance students’ educational preparation for 21st century realities.

We understand that the Commission will hold one of its meetings in Washington, in May. We would welcome the opportunity to speak with your members on the topics addressed in this letter.

As many Commission members already know, AAC&U has long given high priority to the issues of educational quality and accountability, most recently through our multi-year, multi-campus initiative, “Greater Expectations: The Commitment to Quality as a Nation Goes to College.”

Our position on educational excellence is signaled in the title of that initiative. The United States, we believe, has entered a global century of much “greater expectations” for needed knowledge in the economy, in civil society at home and abroad, and in personal life.

Given this changing context, American society needs to significantly raise its expectations for students’ cumulative learning from the combination of school and postsecondary study. With so many students already seeking postsecondary education, the academy can and should play a pivotal role in helping the larger society prepare all students for this more demanding environment.

We are pleased that the Commission has already reviewed AAC&U’s recent publication, Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on Student Achievement in College. The comments below set our report on liberal education outcomes in a larger context that we hope will be useful to the Commission’s forthcoming recommendations.

Diversity, Quality and Accountability

AAC&U’s nearly 1100 institutional members are drawn from all parts of the academy: public, private, large, small, two-year and four year. Many state systems also are active members. Recognizing diversity of mission as one of the defining strengths of American higher education, we believe that this era of “greater expectations” calls on higher education to set significantly higher standards while avoiding the disadvantages of standardization. In what follows, we propose ways that this can be done—for the benefit of individual students and society as a whole.

An educationally productive approach to quality and accountability, we suggest, includes at least four elements:

  • a vision of educational excellence that is calibrated with the needs of a complex, global and rapidly evolving society;
  • clearly articulated educational goals which translate that vision into specific aims and outcomes for students’ learning over time;
  • a multiplicity of pathways through which diverse learners and institutions pursue those aims and outcomes; and
  • assessment practices that help everyone concerned—faculty, students, stakeholders—discern the extent to which students have achieved these key outcomes.

As everyone acknowledges, diverse institutions vary greatly and appropriately in their mission and goals. Excellence takes different forms in different disciplines and professional fields.

This diversity notwithstanding, AAC&U has documented an emerging consensus across many constituencies on a set of widely endorsed educational outcomes that are important to all students, whatever their choice of institution, academic field and intended career. Highly valued by employers as well as the academy, these outcomes were named and addressed in Liberal Education Outcomes, the report you reviewed.

In our view, the valued educational aims and outcomes outlined in Liberal Education Outcomes provide a strong framework for both quality and accountability. To date, we have far too little reliable national evidence on students’ level of achievement on any of these outcomes.

We are mindful that, too often, these outcomes are presented as requirements that students must “complete” rather than as resources for life. As a result, students themselves often do not see the importance of key outcomes—e.g., communication skills, quantitative reasoning, scientific literacy—to their own long-term goals. (AAC&U, Research on Student Views, 2005)

Because of this shortfall in students’ own awareness of these important outcomes, we believe accountability efforts should be designed to help everyone, students, faculty and the public alike, become more aware, intentional, and effective in achieving widely valued educational aims and outcomes, across the several years of school and college.

For the Commission’s Work:

The framework presented above has numerous implications for quality and accountability. We outline four that seem especially pertinent to the Commission’s intended recommendations:

1. Raise the Visibility of Key Educational Aims and Outcomes

The Commission would significantly advance the goal of ensuring educational quality by charging accreditors, including national accreditors, to ensure that all colleges and universities—including for-profit institutions—define and make public their own articulations of high priority educational aims and outcomes. Each college or university’s expected educational outcomes should become a public document, accessible to anyone and frequently consulted by faculty, staff and students. In state systems, the educational outcomes would become shared responsibilities, applicable across institutional boundaries.

AAC&U believes that every college and university should be able to describe to its constituents its own convictions about the forms of learning that best prepare students for a changing economy; a science-fueled world; the realities of global interdependence; the challenges and responsibilities of democracy; and personally fulfilling lives. We also believe that a college education which prepares students only for employment, while ignoring the equally important goals of broad knowledge about science, culture and society; civic and global engagement; and personal development, is too limited in scope and therefore in quality.

This is not to deny the value and utility of more targeted, certificate-level training programs, both at the postsecondary level and for post-college adults. But the public and students alike should understand the difference between a top quality college education, leading to an A.A. or B.A/B.S. degree, and a training program which provides more targeted preparation, and, accordingly, a more limited and less versatile preparation, for a world whose most predictable feature is fast-paced change.

The contemporary practice of presenting all forms of postsecondary study as interchangeable approaches to “college” is confusing to the public, and especially to first generation students who need much fuller information in order to make educational choices in their own long-term interest.

2. Address Key Educational Aims and Outcomes Across the Curriculum, in both General and Major Programs

The widely endorsed educational aims and outcomes we recommend to your attention include:

Knowledge of Human Culture and the Natural and Physical World
• science, social sciences, mathematics, humanities, arts

Intellectual and Practical Skills
• written and oral communication
• inquiry, critical and creative thinking
• quantitative literacy
• information literacy
• teamwork
• integration of learning

Individual and Social Responsibility
• civic knowledge and engagement
• ethical reasoning
• intercultural and global knowledge and competence
• foundations for lifelong learning

Collectively, these outcomes point toward a contemporary vision of liberal education, liberal not in any political sense, but rather as the best preparation for a free society and a dynamic economy.

In addressing these goals for student learning, colleges and universities should go beyond the discrete domain of “general education courses.” The high priority educational aims and outcomes described above should be addressed across the curriculum, from the first year experience through the final year of college (and beyond). Indeed, the foundation for these aims and outcomes should be laid in school, with students’ achievement taken to a significantly higher level during the college years.

Many colleges and universities are already working on this “spiral” design for learning and its assessment. The Commission could play a signal role in making this more contemporary approach to educational quality in college learning both visible and influential.

3. Embed Milestone and Cumulative Assessments at Key Points in the Curriculum

Curriculum-embedded assessments are the most powerful and reliable way of focusing student and faculty attention on the intended outcomes and of demonstrating students’ level of achievement.

The “emerging consensus” on high priority aims and outcomes notwithstanding, the reality is that the intended outcomes—e.g., analysis, communication, problem-solving, quantitative literacy or even global literacy—take different forms depending on whether a student majors in, for example, English, engineering or education. An editor and an engineer should each possess all of these capacities (and more) but they will apply their knowledge and skills in quite different ways.

As the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has documented, 60% of all college seniors already report that they are doing some form of culminating or capstone work in college. In Our Students’ Best Work, AAC&U’s 2004 official board statement on accountability, we strongly recommended that every student should know that such culminating “best work” will be expected and will be assessed for evidence that students have met broad standards for excellence as well as the standards specific to their area(s) of concentration.

We also strongly recommended that diagnostic and milestone assessments provide feedback to students about their progress in mastering the expected outcomes.

A growing number of colleges and universities have already made students’ milestone and culminating projects the focus of outcome assessment. The Commission could make a significant contribution to the accountability movement by encouraging all colleges and universities to assess students’ authentic work, to make their standards for milestone and capstone assessment public, and to report on their findings.

4. Encourage Designs for Accountability that Recognize the Multiple Goals of College Study

Standardized tests have their uses and can be helpfully included in a “toolkit of assessment practices” adopted by individual institutions. But it would be profoundly misleading, and in the long run, injurious to higher learning, to select any one test and make that instrument a national measure of comparative educational quality.

According to press reports, some Commission members wonder whether a commonly administered test would both provide external assurances of quality and allow comparisons across institutions. While we understand the appeal of that question, the reality is that there is no single test which can provide the level and breadth of quality assurance that Americans need and deserve.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment, in which the Commission has expressed interest, is a promising approach to assessment, to be sure. Most academics appreciate its emphasis on complex analysis and written essays, rather than multiple-choice formats. AAC&U has encouraged experimentation with the CLA.*

However, the CLA addresses only three of the outcomes that are widely seen as essential to a 21st century education. The learning outcomes central to a fine education go well beyond the scope of the CLA or any other available or proposed tests.

This same concern applies to any existing standardized test. Each addresses only a fraction of valuable college-level learning; none can appropriately supply evidence on the overall quality, scope or level of students’ college-level accomplishment.

In Conclusion

The proposals outlined here demonstrate what we mean by “high standards” without standardization. They turn a spotlight on educational goals and students’ level of achievement by expecting and assessing “work samples” in which students tackle challenging and unscripted problems.

We hope that the Commission will not place primary emphasis on standardized testing as the catalyst for new levels of college quality and accountability. As Derek Bok has pointed out (Washington Post, March 5, 2005), when tests stand outside the curriculum, students have little reason to try their best, and faculty are unlikely to either trust or act on the results of their “volunteer” efforts.

Calling for milestone and capstone curriculum-embedded assessments will have much greater influence over the long term because it will move cumulative assessments to the very core of faculty and student work. Making milestone and cumulative assessments the standard will focus faculty and student attention alike on new efforts to strengthen and demonstrate the level and breadth of student learning.


Carol Geary Schneider

*Originally called the Value Added Assessment Initiative, the CLA project was featured in the winter/spring 2002 issue of Peer Review and was also the focus of a follow-up article, "A New Field of Dreams: The Collegiate Learning Assessment Project." 

For additional AAC&U publications and other online resources on assessment and liberal education, see Assessment Resources, Liberal Education Resources, and Liberal Education and America's Promise.