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Less Panic, More Common Sense: Questions to Guide Assessment Practices

By J. Elizabeth Clark, professor of English, LaGuardia Community College

No matter what your role at the college--administration, faculty, staff, or student--you’ve been touched by the assessment craze in higher education. What do accrediting bodies want? How do we meet those goals? What do we need to assess? In a straight forward session, Linda Suskie, former vice president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, delivered a common sense guide to accreditation and accountability based on her new book, Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability in Higher Education.

Suskie advocated beginning with focus and aspiration: What are the essential activities in which your campus engages? What are the distinctive traits and underlying values? In short, what makes you different as an institution? What makes you stand out in what you do and how you do it?

The focus and aspiration of your institution should focus on quality and not quantity. You don’t need twenty goals--do five things really well. One point that really resonated for me was the idea that your goals should be aspirational. If your institution has remained the same through multiple cycles of accreditation, how are you meeting the needs of today’s student body, a group that is radically different than twenty or thirty years ago. You also need to think about how you, as a whole institution, will engage in reaching those goals.

I’m guessing that what brought everyone to this session was the big “A” word: assessment. Interestingly, Suskie said that she doesn’t like the word assessment anymore. Assessment suggests the collection of a lot of data and showing it to accreditors and then forgetting about assessment once the accreditation visit ends. Instead, think of assessment as evidence. Good assessment should reflect what we do well as academics: research. What kind of evidence do you need to show that you are achieving your focus? Institutions shouldn't be collecting data for data’s sake. Instead, we should be asking what is reasonable, accurate, and truthful evidence? What is useful for your institutional community? Your evidence needs to be rigorous, justifiable, and consistent--no matter where and how students are learning. Evidence should be transparent, shared within the institution and outside of the institution. How can you share evidence clearly and readily in a way that makes sense to an outside audience?

Once you have the evidence, how do you then use it strategically to improve your campus? Evidence should inform goals and plans, targets, and budget decisions. In other words, good assessment involves evidence, evidence-based decision making, and a culture of learning and sharing as an institution. In a sense, it’s an integrative approach to assessment, suggesting that everything an institution does should be connected.

So far, you have probably anticipated these three dimensions of assessment. What’s particularly useful in Suskie’s approach is the way she urges institutions to think about their assessment work as a learning opportunity for the college to grow and change instead of a periodic chance to show off and perform for an outside audience. However, Suskie also adds two new dimensions: community and relevance.

When you are assessing your institution, think about how community is visible and present. Is there a shared collegial governance? Is there respect? Communication? Collaboration? Leadership capacity and commitment? In short, in what ways is community visible on campus?

Suskie argues that higher education, as a whole, has not done a good job of sharing with the public what we do. Higher education has existed, Suskie says, very much in an ivory tower. There’s a clear connection between the crisis in higher education and the lack of consistent messaging in higher education. How are college campuses relevant today? How do campuses demonstrate integrity? Do institutions put students first? Do you keep your promises to students? Do you meet stakeholder needs?

Even larger than that, does your institution serve the public good? How does the institution engage with the public and demonstrate a relevance? In short, why should the outside community care about what happens on campus?

Another part of this relevance is stewardship. Through donations, tuition, and federal and state support, most institutions operate on other people’s money. How do institutions ensure that you are spending that money well? How do you ensure your college’s financial health and well-being? How are resources deployed efficiently?

I was lucky enough to participate in LaGuardia Community College’s reaccreditation process when Suskie was at Middle States and we benefited greatly from her vision about assessment. That mindset: that assessment should be useful to the institution and is an essential part of how a college thinks about its work and its future. How do we talk about what it is we do at our colleges and universities? How do we show what we do and demonstrate that it works? What is the story of our institutions? Where are those stories unique? Where do those stories share something in common with other campuses? I love the idea of assessment as story telling: how we share what we do and why it’s important, with evidence to support our claims.

Suskie’s five dimensions to accreditation and accountability: focus and aspiration, assessment, improvement/betterment, community & relevance.