Peer Review

From the Editor

There are some very good reasons for higher education to resist assessment. To many, "assessment" signifies a focus only on what can be easily measured or on quantitative approaches motivated only by accountability rather than by educational improvement. This is due, in large part, to the highly uneven record of ongoing efforts to assess higher education outcomes and to the K-12 legacy of standards and testing. Yet critiques of the assessment movement have come to be overwhelmed by a sense of inevitability. As Roger Benjamin and Richard Hersh warn in this issue, "Unless the academy constructs an educationally efficacious assessment system, one may well be imposed from outside." And so the threshold question of whether to assess has, rightly, begun to give way to the questions of what to assess and how to assess.

Carol Schneider reinscribes Benjamin and Hersh's warning as a call for leadership: "It is time … for higher education to proactively lead a national effort to focus assessment on higher level learning outcomes." In other words, higher education leaders must responsibly engage the assessment movement in a coordinated way by developing a truly qualitative approach that demonstrates compatibility between improvement and accountability. In this engagement, however, we must be mindful of the many good reasons higher education has for so long resisted assessment. What would a national effort of this kind look like?

In the fall of 2000, the RAND Corporation's Council for Aid to Education began a feasibility study for a national Value Added Assessment Initiative (VAAI), a long-term project to assess the quality of undergraduate liberal education in America at the institutional level. It is longitudinal in nature-following students from the beginning to the end of their undergraduate education and beyond, multi-institutional and comprehensive-encompassing community colleges, residential liberal arts colleges, comprehensive universities, and online programs, and measures actual student learning rather than relying on student self-report. The objectives are to create a model and incentive for continuous improvement of higher education and to create protocol assessment measures that the major stakeholders-faculty and administrators, students, parents, employers, and policymakers-can use to improve the quality of academic programs within individual institutions.

The VAAI seeks to initiate and advance a national conversation about the nature, purpose, and value of directly measuring student learning as a possible new metric for program improvement, incentive and reward systems in higher education, and public policy affecting higher education generally. This special issue of Peer Review begins this conversation by proposing compelling answers to the questions of what to assess and how to assess. Accordingly, this issue departs from the standard format of Peer Review to accommodate both a thorough presentation of the VAAI and several initial responses to it.

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