Peer Review, Spring 2007

Vol. 9, 
No. 2
Peer Review

From the President

As this issue of Peer Review goes to press, national events--from the breakdown of negotiations over new rules governing accreditation to the spirited resistance to Secretary Spellings's efforts to federalize judgments about educational quality--remind us all that the larger context for our work is changing rapidly and dramatically.

Colleges and universities are under a spotlight with far more scrutiny than has been typical in recent years. The good news is that this heightened scrutiny is a result of higher education's increasing importance in our society. Once just an option for the fortunate, higher education is now seen as essential for America's future. The bad news is that many who are scrutinizing us have brought an accounting rather than an educational vision to the task. Determined to produce quantitative metrics that allow comparisons across institutions, the current Department of Education and policy leaders in many states are focusing relentlessly on things that can be counted, such as graduation rates, job placement rates, and pass rates on standardized tests. The obvious danger to anyone who cares about education is that we will end up narrowing and trivializing higher learning in order to measure it.

Yet employers, ironically, are urgently demanding that students master the higher-level outcomes associated with liberal education: analytical and communication skills, rich knowledge of science and global interdependence, and the ability to apply knowledge to unscripted problems where the "right answer" remains an unknown (see results of AAC&U's employer survey and recent LEAP report online at But federal officials seem focused instead on what is best described as the meager minimum.

The higher education community is mobilizing to stop the misguided efforts launched by the Department of Education. But blocking is not enough. We must band together to champion a vision of educational quality and authentic assessment practices that will do more than measure basic skills. Assessment can and should be designed to deepen and strengthen student learning, not just to document it. And assessments surely must aim at the highest levels of student learning--at the integration of knowledge, analysis, and action--not at the most rudimentary levels.

With strong endorsement from educators and employers, AAC&U's LEAP report, College Learning for the New Global Century, affirms that "the framework for accountability should be students' demonstrated ability to apply their learning to complex problems." By definition, this standard calls for a strong emphasis on students' performance in authentic integrative assignments and projects.

With this as our standard, we have focused in this issue of Peer Review on assessment approaches that serve the needs of external accountability, but also help us raise students' levels of achievement. We explore in particular the use of the culminating course or project as a context both for integrating students' learning and for assessing it.

As the examples in this issue show, capstones also can be designed and assessed to reveal student learning on broad outcomes, such as critical thinking or civic engagement, as well as on competencies particular to a field of study. Some institutions, including community colleges, also are incorporating capstone assignments in student portfolios that include first-year and milestone work. By systematic sampling and review, an institution can use these work samples to show student growth over time, as well as the actual level of student accomplishment.

Our challenge now is to make more visible to policy leaders and the public these authentic assessment practices and explain clearly why they are the right standard for accountability. To do this, we will need educational leadership at two levels: nationally, to promote the concept of assessments worthy of our mission, and on campus, to establish high standards for the design and implementation of authentic, learning-intensive assessments. The stakes in this debate are very high. AAC&U's goal for assessment and accountability is to "aim high" and make authentic learning the standard. Working with you, we will do everything we can to make this the American standard as well.

Previous Issues