• Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.


Outcomes Assessment

In praise of accountability.


June 30, 2013

My car, similar to many recent model domestic and foreign cars, has a stop/start engine capability.  If I apply the brakes, the engine stops within a few seconds and once I step on the accelerator, the engine springs back to life almost seamlessly.  Initially, I wondered about the reliability of the stop start technology. My painful experience with a Chevrolet Vega has conditioned me to expect that once the engine stops, good luck in getting it started again.  But the experience to date, through thousands of miles of driving, has relieved my anxieties and built up my confidence.  I know that start/stop works and that it is reliable.

As noted above, the start/stop process is almost seamless but you are nevertheless aware that the engine is stopping and starting.  But this is a small price to pay for saving gas and being more economical.  But that leads to the following key question:  what is the savings involved and in a cost benefit analysis, how does the savings compare to the extra costs involved.  In other words, I am looking for outcomes assessment on the car level.

When outcomes assessment first surfaced in higher education and also in K-12 education, I wondered whether these efforts were really necessary.  There were many outcomes that were clearly present, so what was the necessity of a comprehensive effort in this area. There were also substantial additional costs involved in undertaking any comprehensive assessment effort. However, working with outcomes assessment over these recent years and seeing how it now leads naturally to continuous improvement has convinced me as to the wisdom of the efforts in this area. Especially the migration of assessment to the individual areas and courses in the curriculum has convinced me that on both the micro level and the macro level, education and our students are the beneficiaries.

On the K-12 level, I am equally convinced about the benefit of comprehensive outcomes assessment but I am also somewhat more concerned.  I have this feeling and some supporting data to go with the feeling, that assessment has resulted in an overemphasis on testing.  And too much testing too early in a student’s career replaces a love of learning with a sense of apprehension which is clearly counterproductive. We need a balance and we need assessment that is imbedded in the curriculum rather than overemphasizing examinations.

I am a lifetime subscriber to Consumer Reports and a tremendous fan of their highly systematic assessment of the worth of many products and many services. Their testing of cars and their surveys of car owners constitute a model of assessment in the moment and over time that has been unmatched for many years, and still is unmatched by any of the competition.

Assessment has become a natural part of what we do in education.  I think this accountability is appropriate and I for one wholeheartedly support these efforts and the resulting accountability


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