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Next-Gen Assessment: Educational Measurement and Postsecondary Research

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy is driven by the belief that educational opportunity should not depend on race or income.

By Russell Cannon

August 27, 2021

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy is driven by the belief that educational opportunity should not depend on race or income. We seek to ground our work in evidence and to learn with partners in the field as we support networks of institutions striving to transform themselves to become more student-centered.

Our core work includes investing in the development of resources and tools for institutional transformation; supporting the development and delivery of evidence-backed interventions (with some key focuses on advising, developmental education, and digital learning); assisting partners who are leading networks of institutions in transformation efforts; and advocating for public policy that supports students and their institutions.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and our nation's reckoning with racial injustice have heightened the importance of a postsecondary system that better serves Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, and students from low-income backgrounds. The past year has challenged us to redouble many of our existing programmatic efforts.

In consultation with field partners, we selected four priorities for new or increased focus:

  1. Holistic student support: addressing academic, financial, and personal supports that meet the needs of the students so that they are successful in postsecondary institutions.
  2. Quality teaching and learning: providing evidence for the development and delivery of online and hybrid courses and programs that will lead to student success, especially for students of color, first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds.
  3. Student mobility: promoting policies and practices that ensure students remain on the path to successfully receiving certificates and degrees even when moving across institutions.
  4. Institutional viability: ensuring that colleges, universities, systems, and states can consistently address demographic, environment, and fiscal trends and disruptions.

Throughout this work, we have strived to ensure that our efforts are grounded in evidence and learning, a commitment more important than ever as we seek to understand the impacts of the pandemic. As part of these efforts, we increased the regularity of our field updates on the foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy. But the past year has also brought challenges. In-person evaluation methods like focus groups, observations, and norming sessions have rapidly moved online. Many activities such as advising, instruction, and administration have, in many cases, pivoted in form and focus. Expectations for time and engagement have been reexamined as governments, partners, and institutions (not to mention our own team members) have struggled with capacity challenges. And mainstays of measurement, including most forms of trend-based analysis, have been disrupted in ways that will long outlast some of the more immediate effects of the pandemic.

Against this backdrop, we have tried to find space to pull back and focus on the forms of evaluation and measurement that are right and reasonable for this moment, which can feel both immediate and historic. In some areas, like rapid desk research and strategic dissemination of data to practitioners, we have accelerated our work. In other areas, like trend-based target setting and new qualitative data collection, we have tried to modify, postpone, or simply stop.

While the full impacts of the pandemic on institutions and students are still evolving, the data we have today—from enrollment and financial aid data to surveys of instructors, students, and households—suggests that the impact will be inequitable. Disaggregation by student groups (including race/ethnicity and Pell Grant status) is a necessary part of our research and measurement efforts, and yet disaggregation alone is not sufficient to meet the needs of the moment. It is essential that educators make sure we are capturing the student voice while also exploring methods that push our evaluation work further toward a focus on equity.

I spent most of my career as an administrator in postsecondary institutions and know we are not alone in many of these challenges. With our evaluation and field partners, we are navigating the tension between capacity, quality, and necessity—sometimes falling short, but striving to learn every step of the way and get better as we go.

Interview with Russell Cannon

The Next-Gen Assessment multimedia series is coordinated by Tammie Cumming (Brooklyn College, CUNY) and M. David Miller (University of Florida).


  • Russell Cannon

    Russell Cannon is senior program officer for Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.