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Higher Learning and the Accountability Debates

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The rapid pace of events in Washington and around the country—from the breakdown of negotiations over new rules governing accreditation to the spirited resistance to the Department of Education’s efforts to federalize judgments about educational quality—reminds us all that the larger context for our work is changing rapidly and dramatically. 

Colleges and universities of all types now face far more public and policy scrutiny of higher education than has been typical in recent years. The good news is that this heightened scrutiny is a result of higher education’s increasing importance in our society. From an option for the fortunate, higher education is now seen as essential for America’s future.

The bad news is that many who are scrutinizing us have brought an accounting rather than an educational vision to the task. Determined to produce quantitative metrics that allow comparisons across institutions, the current Department of Education and policy leaders in many states are focusing relentlessly on things that can be counted, such as graduation rates, job placement rates, and pass rates on standardized tests that rely, for the most part, on multiple choice, one-right answer metrics. 

The obvious danger to anyone who cares about education is that we will end up narrowing and trivializing higher learning—in order to measure it. 

Proponents of standardized, comparable testing in higher education point repeatedly to the need for a globally prepared workforce. Yet employers, ironically, are calling not for standardized thinkers, but for college graduates who can help drive a new era of creativity and innovation in a sophisticated global economy.

In chorus, employers are demanding that students master the higher-level outcomes traditionally associated with liberal education: analytical and communication skills, rich knowledge of science and global interdependence, and the ability to apply knowledge to problems where the “right answer” remains an unknown. You can read for yourselves the results of AAC&U’s employer survey and focus group findings at www.aacu.org/leap. But the debate in Washington has ignored these higher-level goals for achievement while the recent accreditation debates have centered on what is best described as the meager minimum.

Higher education has already forcefully mobilized—through advocacy to the Congress—to slow the rush to new rules for accreditation.

But protests are not enough. We also must band together to promote a conception of educational quality and authentic assessment practices that moves American education to a higher level, not to the meager minimum, and not to accountability practices best suited to the age of the assembly line.

Assessment can and should be designed to deepen and strengthen student learning, not just to document it. And assessments worthy of our mission surely must aim at the highest levels of student learning—at the integration of knowledge, analysis, application and action—not at the most rudimentary levels.

With strong endorsement from educators and employers, AAC&U’s LEAP report, College Learning for the New Global Century, affirms that “the framework for accountability should be students’ demonstrated ability to apply their learning to complex problems.” By definition, this standard moves us away from “thru-put” measures such as retention and graduation, and from multiple-choice assessments of learning, toward a strong emphasis on students’ performance in authentic assignments: projects, performances, supervised fieldwork, undergraduate research, and the like. 

With this as our standard, AAC&U has focused persistently over the past several years on assessment approaches that serve the needs of external accountability, but also help us raise students’ levels of achievement. In the Spring 2007 issue of Peer Review, we explore in particular the use of the culminating course or project as a context both for integrating students’ learning and for assessing it. 

Capstone courses and projects are campus-grown inventions that have spread widely in American higher education. They deserve a fresh look as higher education mobilizes to provide an educational response to the current calls for better assessment and accountability.

According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, 61 percent of college seniors complete culminating work of some kind, including about half of those in large research universities. Many departments already use these capstones to assess student learning in the major. But capstones also can be designed and assessed to show student learning on broad outcomes, such as critical thinking or civic engagement, as well as on competencies particular to a field of study. 

Some institutions, including a growing number of community colleges, already are incorporating capstone assignments in student portfolios that include first-year and interim work. By systematic sampling, an institution can use results from these portfolios, including the capstone assignment, to show student growth over time, as well as the actual level of student accomplishment. Students can use these portfolios to reflect on their own gains in competence and knowledge, even as institutions sample them to assess educational quality outcomes at the unit and institutional level.

Our challenge now is to advance these authentic assessment practices—designed to focus, deepen, and integrate learning—as the right response to new calls for meaningful levels of accountability in higher education. 

To do this, we will need educational leadership at two levels: nationally, to promote the concept of assessments worthy of our mission, and on campus, to establish high standards for the design and implementation of authentic, learning-intensive assessments. 

The stakes in this national debate about educational quality are very high. AAC&U’s goal for assessment and accountability is to “aim high” and make authentic learning the standard. Working with you, we will do everything we can to make this the American standard as well.

Carol Geary Schneider, President
Association of American Colleges and Universities

Note: A shorter version of this article will appear in the forthcoming Spring 2007 issue of Peer Review. 

Carol Geary Schneider