Peer Review

Measuring the Difference College Makes: The RAND/CAE Value Added Assessment Initiative

In the fall of 2000, the RAND Corporation's Council for Aid to Education (CAE) embarked on the national Value Added Assessment Initiative (VAAI), a long-term project to assess the quality of undergraduate education in the United States by measuring its impact on students. With initial funding from a consortium of major foundations, the VAAI involves the continuum of higher education, from community colleges to doctoral-degree-granting private and state colleges and universities. The objective is to create a model and an incentive for the continuous improvement of higher education as well as to create measures of quality that all the major stakeholders-university administrators, faculty, students, parents, employers, and policymakers-can use as part of their evaluation of the quality of academic programs nationwide. This issue of Peer Review presents an interim report on the progress of this project.

Logically, student outcomes assessment should be the central component of any effort to measure the quality of an institution or program. Yet most evaluations of quality are based solely on student and alumni surveys, tabulations of actuarial data such as graduation rates, peer review accreditation, "reputation" rankings, institutional resources, and the admissions selectivity of the student body. In lieu of any systematic, direct measure of student learning by higher education itself, rating and ranking systems, such as those utilized by college guidebooks and U.S. News & World Report, are being relied upon by prospective students and their parents as surrogate measures of quality. Such ratings and rankings depend mainly on "input" variables, such as endowment dollars and SAT scores. These indicators do not directly measure the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students develop in college and thus do a great injustice to the quality, complexity, and diversity of higher education in the United States. The development of direct measures of student learning is the missing but essential ingredient needed to improve the quality of American higher education.

Value Added Assessment: An Important Educational Quality Tool
Excellence and quality should be determined by the degree to which an institution develops the abilities of its students. Such a "value added" metric would better inform decisions concerned with access, productivity, and quality. In the literature on higher education, the term "value added" often refers either to the value of having a college degree-in terms of income, job, and life satisfaction (Krueger 2000)-or to the benefits derived from alternative programs, courses of study, and experiences within an institution (Astin 1993).

The VAAI focuses on a third definition, which has to do with the institution as a whole. What difference does the institution make for its students? Is it more effective in making a difference now than in the past? Is it more effective than other similarly situated schools after controlling for the admissions scores and other relevant attributes of its incoming students? Measuring such value requires assessing what students know and can do as they begin college and assessing them again during and after (including many years after) they have had the full benefit of their college education. Value added is the difference a college makes in their education. Value added assessment is appropriate for the variety of higher education institutional missions-including those of community colleges, which account for close to 40 percent of all undergraduate enrollment. In addition, given that students increasingly begin in one institution and finish in another, it may also provide a benchmark against which to assess appropriate program placement and transfer credits within and/or across institutions.

The Challenges of Value Added Assessment
If value added assessment is so useful, why has it not been the standard practice? As Doug Bennett, President of Earlham College, explains in a recent issue of Liberal Education (2001), the reason is that value added is very difficult to measure. First, Bennett suggests, value has many dimensions. No college or university is trying to develop only a single capability in students. A campus may be doing well with one learning dimension but less well with another. And some dimensions are easier to measure than others. Second, students are different. Everyone learns some subjects or capabilities more easily than others. Is a college or university doing a better job of educating some students because of this fact? Third, institutions are different. How does one compare the quality of institutions with differing missions (e.g., a research university focused on graduate study compared to a small liberal arts college)? Fourth, effects have many sources, and effects unfold. Even if students are full-time at a single institution, how can we tell what contributions that campus has made, as opposed, for example, to the contributions of a part-time job or their church? Moreover, the contributions to learning may not be realized in the short-term; they may be felt only years later. Fifth, the most important effects may be transformative. Because a liberal education seeks to develop a unique person, in command of all the capabilities within her/his potential, the most important effects may be uniquely combined and transformative of that person as a whole-a very difficult thing to assess. Finally, measuring value added is expensive. The kinds of assessment the VAAI proposes (e.g., using writing samples rather than multiple-choice questions and implementing tests that measure critical and imaginative thinking, all of which in pre- and post-test formats) is far more costly than conventional testing in individual classrooms.

Because of these challenges, as well as other barriers to assessment, the VAAI is focused specifically on assessing a few selected student outcomes of "common" undergraduate education in America through a research strategy (discussed in this issue) that takes them into account. By "common" we mean those educational purposes, objectives, and core attributes most observers usually include under the rubric of "liberal education," such as writing, higher order thinking, problem solving and quantitative reasoning. The VAAI is informed by but goes beyond current research literature, which is rich with correlational and student self-report studies suggesting-but unable to prove-the hypothesized causal teaching/learning relationships claimed for liberal education curricula and pedagogy.

Now, at the end of the first year of a two-year feasibility study, we are developing a variety of prototype measures that can help assess the "value added" of selected competencies, skills, and values gained by individual students as a consequence of liberal education at a particular college, university, or online provider. These measures will be tested on fifteen campuses this spring. The results of this testing will help in designing a five-year longitudinal study that will follow individual students from college entrance to degree completion. Such measures are being developed in concert with faculty and administrators throughout the country.

Institutional and Public Policy Benefits of Value Added Assessment
First and foremost, value added assessment should have as its goal the continuous improvement of curricula, pedagogy, admissions, certification, and retention within an institution. However, the initial focus of VAAI will be the institution. Value added assessments could also provide diagnostic feedback to both students and faculty within programs and majors and catalyze improvement efforts. Timely and appropriate assessment provides feedback to students to improve their learning in much the same way that doctors' and coaches' assessments help patients and athletes to improve. In this sense, assessment should be an inextricable part of the teaching/learning process.

Certainly, some students do not learn because they have not been responsible; assessment will have obvious consequences for failed student effort. However, the educational point is that if assessment shows large numbers of students aggregated by gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or other criteria not doing as well as expected, there is a faculty and institutional responsibility to investigate the reasons for this and, where appropriate, make changes in courses, programs, and teaching. Moreover, the development of effective measures of the value added to student performance would create an additional source of data on teaching effectiveness that goes beyond current student evaluations of courses.

In addition to the benefits value added assessment could bring to campus-based improvement efforts, this form of assessment could also assist those responsible for developing enlightened policies that will support essential higher education reforms. Governors and legislators set goals for their higher education sector based on their perceptions of their workforce needs, socioeconomic inequality problems, enrollment pressures, and budgetary constraints. State policies intended to ensure quality, productivity, and accountability would be enhanced if informed by a common metric. Value added direct assessment of student learning best serves that purpose. Anything short of this systemic approach will leave academic leaders and governors without a basis for determining the effectiveness of their own policies, costs, or benefits.

The focus on the state's role in higher education policy, however, is only one-half of the equation; a focus on public and private higher education institutions is the other half. We must connect these halves by linking state policy in higher education to the institutions that, in the end, carry out such policies. Unless we develop a research and policy design logic that combines both institutional and state levels of analysis, it is highly unlikely that the goals of state-level policymakers and analysts will be achieved. The concern for accountability, most often associated with state demands on public colleges and universities, can unintentionally promote bad educational policy. For example, state funding is often predicated on full-time student equivalents (FTE). This body-count mentality focuses issues like retention more on maintaining enrollment than on educational quality. And policies to provide smaller classes, technology for teaching, or more effective advising, for example, might better be judged by their direct impact on students.

The problem is that each educational policy issue, such as access, retention, true costs of instruction, and quality-whether debated inside or outside the academy-is too often treated in isolation. For example, the benefits of cost reduction ideas need to be evaluated against an appropriate benchmark; the logical candidate is the quality of student learning outcomes. And while the public discourse in higher education is understandably focused on improving access, it surely is critically important to ask the question: Access to what kind and level of quality of undergraduate education? Access is a hollow promise, indeed, if the quality of educational programming and teaching is poor.

Finally, value added data, coupled with the necessary clarification of institutional expectations for students, can provide clearer signals to the K-12 system. Seventy percent of high school graduates move on to some form of higher education. The creation of a seamless K-16 system requires that much more attention be paid to the criteria for higher education admissions and graduation. Much has been written recently about the "wasted" senior year of high school and the universal complaint that too many students come to colleges and universities severely under-prepared for college-level work. A value added approach to direct assessment of student learning (controlling for the resources the student brings to higher education) requires clear specification of student performance and thus sets the stage for linking high school graduation requirements to college entrance and exit standards that could then be monitored over time. States with strong and sophisticated K-12 testing regimes, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, are now in a good position to articulate such standards as a K-16 system.

Barriers to Value Added Assessment
It is crucial to emphasize that the culture of higher education is unique. It is simply not sufficient to import from K-12 or industry the rhetoric of assessment and efficiency. The nature of teaching, learning, and scholarship, in the context of college and university cultures, requires an assessment system designed specifically for those environments. Moreover, states must understand that real investments in their institutions are required in order to provide the time, energy, and resources necessary for such an endeavor. An assessment system cannot be handed down to higher education from above; it must be a faculty- and institution- driven initiative.

Generally, academic culture does not value systemic cumulative assessment of undergraduate learning. Currently, the metric most commonly used to guide performance-promotion, tenure, and merit raises-is a system of qualitative and quantitative measures that emphasize research productivity. To date, the primary initiative for assessment of educational quality has come mostly from outside academe-from state and local boards of education, corporations, state legislatures, governors, and market-oriented online educators-through calls for increased accountability standards. States have garnered the most headlines in this regard with their K-12 school reform priorities, explicit state-wide standards, and so called "high-stakes testing." Such assessment, however, is difficult. It requires political and educational consensus about what is worth learning, developing valid and reliable assessment measures, constructing efficacious curricula, improving instruction, providing appropriate reward and incentive systems, and offering the financial resources and time for the development and sustenance of a comprehensive, systemic assessment program. These are equally salient issues for higher education, whose history and culture make it especially resistant to assessment.

The academy has observed the problems states are having with assessment of K-12 education: the tendency to reduce testing to what is easily measured; inappropriate coaching or even cheating on the part of teachers and schools; narrowing the curriculum to just what is tested; and confusing assessment designed for diagnostic purposes with the politics and economics of holding individual schools accountable. These are serious issues and have reinforced the usual questioning by higher education of the value of the entire assessment enterprise. We argue that the selection of appropriate tests can, in fact, have a positive impact on learning (see Klein, "The Educational Impact of Assessment Policies: What the Legal Community is Learning," below).

Finally, a prior history of intermittent but inappropriate federal and state administrative intrusion into curriculum raises a legitimate concern by faculty about the undermining of "academic freedom." For example, the attempted federal directive on accountability that was to require the creation of State Post-Secondary Review Entities in all fifty states was strongly rejected by the states. And recently, the New York Board of Regents mandated a core curriculum for the State University of New York. Assessment beyond individual course grading, say professors, is just the first slide down the slippery hill of external intrusion.

Unless the academy constructs an educationally efficacious assessment system, one may well be imposed from outside. Ultimately, value added assessment will succeed only if it is "owned" and constructed by faculty. Boards of Trustees and state systems must support such leadership. And higher education leaders must develop productive collaboration among faculty, boards, and policy leaders.

Assessment of value added requires a radical cultural shift within higher education, a great deal of time, effort, cooperation, risk-taking, and funding. It takes more time, more skill, more trust, and more safeguards than are currently extant. It is, however, an investment with a potentially large payoff because, for the first time, many proposed changes would be evaluated against their positive or negative impact on student learning.

Clearly the assessment of value added is needed and poses significant challenges. Nevertheless, we believe that the questions the VAAI is raising are important and that the answers would be most useful in informing institutional and public policy. What matters in higher education? What differences do different roads taken by colleges and universities make? How might states break through the barriers to educational quality in an era of increasing demand for excellence in higher education and increasing distrust of government to provide what is now understood to be a social and economic necessity for all citizens? Can we answer these questions more cogently, wisely, and systematically than we do now by anecdote? The VAAI is an attempt to bring such questions to the fore and provide a protocol for deriving the best possible answers.


Astin, Alexander W. 1993. What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Bennett, Douglas. 2001. Assessing quality in higher education. Liberal Education 87:2, 40-45.

Krueger, Alan B. 2000. Education matters. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

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