The authors are leading a panel on “The Future of Assessment” at AAC&U’s 2022 Annual Meeting. Join us Thursday, January 20, from 2:30 to 3:45 p.m., for a wide-ranging discussion about harnessing energy and resources to more effectively improve student learning. The panel will be moderated by Megan Good, assistant professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University.
While it is widely accepted and expected that institutions will measure student learning to ensure educational outcomes are being met, criticisms remain even among those who have long championed the value of program assessment.
The time may be ripe for a reassessment.
Part of the problem with the existing paradigm is the reaccreditation cycle and the demands placed on colleges and universities to comply. These processes are not always useful to the institutions themselves.
“Assessment is not practiced in its ideal form as collaborative inquiry into student learning,” write Charlie Blaich, director of the Center of Inquiry and Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, and his coauthor Kathleen Wise. The demands of regulators often lead to trade-offs in the scope, cost, and speed of research, assessment, and educational improvement.
“Using data to research learning can take years and requires expertise,” they write. Rather than trying to keep up with demands of accreditors, institutions should focus on conducting fewer, more careful research and assessment projects.
The trade-offs caused by the accreditation process also lead educators to prioritize data that may not be particularly useful. Rather than focusing on institutional improvement, too many assessment processes adopt a “checkbox mentality.” In their recent book Improving Student Learning at Scale, Keston Fulcher, executive director for the Center for Assessment and Research Studies at James Madison University, and coauthor Caroline Prendergast call for balancing formal measurements with faculty wisdom in choosing projects.
Current assessment paradigms have “closed off questioning of key assumptions and . . . facilitated the ossification of certain practices that may no longer serve us well,” Doug Roscoe, director of general education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, wrote in the Winter 2017 issue of Liberal Education. Roscoe proposes a new framework for assessment that prioritizes faculty expertise and focuses on improvement rather than measurement for compliance purposes. “Rather than requiring each department to identify an assessment guru who collects and analyzes data for the department,” he writes, “it would be far better to require regular department discussions about how to improve student learning.”
Restructuring assessment in this fashion, however, would require changes to the peer-review process. According to Josie Welsh, president of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, accreditor standards that focus on institutional mission and broad student success initiatives would free faculty from the burden of the prescriptive five-column assessment report that peer reviewers have come to expect, while also allowing campuses to tell their stories of improved student learning in meaningful ways.
In July 2021, the US Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, chaired by David Eubanks, assistant vice president for institutional effectiveness at Furman University, issued a report on accreditation requirements for learning assessment. The committee recommended several changes to standard assessment processes that can help institutions move beyond outdated practices and the trade-offs required by accreditation cycles:
- make processes less complicated, expensive, and time-consuming
- ensure educators pay more attention to data quality and quantity, as well as the sophistication of analysis
- allow more customization based on institutional missions and cultures
- permit innovations in measuring student learning
- prevent peer reviewers of assessment findings from adding additional requirements
Such change will not be easy. “There are a lot of grumpy people in the academy who just don’t see the point in assessment,” Roscoe says. “We’re not among them. We know fixing it is going to require some academy-wide conversations about accreditation.”