assessmentaccountability

Federal rating system could displace accreditation as judge of higher ed quality (essay)

With all the extensive consultation about the Postsecondary Institutions Ratings System during the past 18 months, all the meetings and the many conversations, we know almost nothing about its likely impact on accreditation, our all-important effort by colleges, universities and accrediting organizations working together to define, judge and improve academic quality.

All that the U.S. Department of Education has officially said to date is that the system will “help inform” accreditation -- and we do not know what this means. 

This is worrisome. Ratings create, in essence, a federal system of quality review of higher education, with the potential to upend the longstanding tradition of nongovernmental accreditation that has carried out this role for more than 100 years. And establishing the system may mean the end of more than 60 years of accreditation as a partner with government, the reliable authority on educational quality to which Congress and the Education Department have turned.

Accreditation is about judgment of academic quality in the hands of faculty members and academic administrators. It is about the commitment to peer review -- academics reviewing academics yet accountable to the public -- as the preferred, most effective mode of determining quality. It is about leadership for academic judgment when it comes to such factors as curriculum, programs, standards and strategic direction remaining in the hands of the academic community. 

In contrast, a ratings system is a path to a government model of quality review in place of the current model of academics as the primary judges of quality.

First introduced by President Obama in August 2013 and turned over to the Education Department for development, the ratings system is on track for implementation in 2015-16. Based on the still incomplete information the department has released to the public, the system is intended to rate (read: judge) colleges and universities based on three indicators: access, affordability and student outcomes. Institutions will be considered either “high performing,” “low performing” or “those in the middle.” Ultimately, the amount of federal student aid funding a college or university receives is intended to be linked to its rating.

A federal ratings system is both an existential and political challenge to accreditation.

First, there is the challenge of a potential shift of ownership of quality. Second, new key actors in judging quality may be emerging. Finally, the relationship between accreditation and the federal government when it comes to quality may be shifting, raising questions about both the gatekeeping role of accreditation in eligibility for federal funds and the agreement about distribution of responsibilities among the parties in the triad -- the federal government, the states and accreditation.

A ratings system means that government owns quality through its indicators and its decisions about what counts as success in meeting the indicators. The indicators replace peer review. 

It means that government officials are key actors in judging quality. Officials replace academics. With all respect to the talent and commitment of these officials, they are not hired for their expertise in teaching and learning, developing higher education curriculum, setting academic standards, or conducting academic research. Yet using a ratings system calls for just these skills.

A ratings system means that the relationship between accreditors and the federal government, with the accreditors as dominant with regard to quality judgments, may give way to a lesser role for accreditation, perhaps using performance on the ratings system as a key determinant of eligibility for federal funds -- in addition to accreditation. Or, it is not difficult to envision a scenario in which ratings replace accreditation entirely with regard to institutional eligibility for access to federal financial aid.

We need to know more about what we do not know about the ratings system. Going forward, we will benefit from keeping the following questions in mind as the system -- and its impact on accreditation -- continues to develop.

First, there are questions about the big picture of the ratings system:

  • Has a decision been made that the United States, with the single most distinctive system of a government-private sector partnership that maximizes the responsible independence of higher education, is now shifting to the model of government dominance of higher education that typifies most of the rest of the world?
  • What reliable information will be available to students and the public through the ratings system that they do not currently have? Will this information be about academic quality, including effective teaching and learning? What is the added value? 

Second, there are questions about the impact of the ratings on accredited institutions:

  • Are the indicators to serve as the future quality profile of a college or university? Will the three indicators that the system uses -- access, affordability and outcomes -- become the baseline for judging academic quality in the future? 
  • Will it be up to government to decide what counts as success with regard to the outcomes indicators for a college or university -- graduation, transfer of credit, entry to graduate school and earnings?
  • To claim quality, will colleges and universities have to not only provide information about their accredited status, but also their ratings, whether “high performing,” “low performing” or “in the middle”?
  • Will institutions be pushed to diminish their investment in accreditation if, ultimately, it is the ratings that matter -- in place of accreditation?

Finally, there are questions about how ratings will affect the day-to-day operation of accrediting organizations and their relationship to the federal government:

  • Will accreditors be required to collect/use/take into account the information generated by the ratings system? If so, how is this to influence their decisions about institutions and programs that are currently based on peer review, not ratings?
  • Will performance on the ratings system be joined with formal actions of accrediting organizations, with both required for accredited status and thus eligibility of institutions for federal funds -- in contrast to the current system of reliance on the formal actions of accrediting organizations?
  • How, if at all, will the ratings system affect the periodic federal review of the 52 accrediting organizations that are currently federally recognized? Will the government review now include the ratings of institutions as part of examination and judgment of an accreditor’s effectiveness?

While we cannot answer many of these questions at this time, we can use them to anticipate what may take place in the approaching reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, with bills expected in spring or summer.

We can use them to identify key developments in the ratings that have the potential to interfere with our efforts to retain peer review and nongovernmental quality review in preference to the ratings system.

Judith S. Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Faculty members should drive efforts to measure student learning (essay)

Lumina Foundation recently released an updated version of its Degree Qualifications Profile (D.Q.P.), which helps define what students should know and what skills they should master to obtain higher education degrees.

This revised framework marks a significant step in the conversation about measuring students’ preparedness for the workforce and for life success based on how much they've learned rather than how much time they’ve spent in the classroom. It also provides a rare opportunity for faculty members at colleges and universities to take the lead in driving long-overdue change in how we define student success.

The need for such change has never been stronger. As the economy evolves and the cost of college rises, the value of a college degree is under constant scrutiny. No longer can we rely on piled-up credit hours to prove whether students are prepared for careers after graduation. We need a more robust -- and relevant -- way of showing that our work in the classroom yields results.

Stakeholders ranging from university donors to policy makers have pushed for redefining readiness, and colleges and universities have responded to their calls for action. But too often the changes have been driven by the need to placate those demanding reform and produce quick results. That means faculty input has been neglected.

If we’re to set up assessment reform for long-term success, we need to empower faculty members to be the true orchestrators.  

The D.Q.P. provides an opportunity to do that, jelling conversations that have been going on among faculty and advisers for years. Lumina Foundation developed the tool in consultation with faculty and other experts from across the globe and released a beta version to be piloted by colleges and universities in 2011. The latest version reflects feedback from the field, based on their experience with the beta version -- and captures the iterative, developmental processes of education understood by people who work with students daily.

Many of the professionals teaching in today’s college classrooms understand the need for change. They’re used to adapting to ever-changing technologies, as well as evolving knowledge. And they want to measure students’ preparedness in a way that gives them the professional freedom to own the changes and do what they know, as committed professionals, works best for students.

As a tool, the D.Q.P. encourages this kind of faculty-driven change. Rather than a set of mandates, the D.Q.P. is a framework that invites them to be change agents. It allows faculty to assess students in ways that are truly beneficial to student growth. Faculty members don't care about teaching to the assessment; they want to use what they glean from assessments to help improve student learning.

We’ve experienced the value of using the D.Q.P. in this fashion at Utah State University. In 2011, when the document was still in its beta version, we adopted it as a guide to help us rethink general education and its connection to our degrees and the majors within them. 

We began the process by convening disciplinary groups of faculty to engage them in a discussion about a fundamental question: “What do you think your students need to know, understand and be able to do?” This led to conversations about how students learn and what intellectual skills they need to develop.

We began reverse engineering the curriculum, which forced us to look at how general education and the majors work together to produce proficient graduates. This process also forced us to ask where degrees started, as well as ended, and taught us how important advisers, librarians and other colleagues are to strong degrees.

The proficiencies and competencies outlined in the D.Q.P. provided us with a common institutional language to use in navigating these questions. The D.Q.P.’s guideposts also helped us to avoid reducing our definition of learning to course content and enabled us to stay focused on the broader framework of student proficiencies at various degree milestones.

Ultimately the D.Q.P. helped us understand the end product of college degrees, regardless of major: citizens who are capable of thinking critically, communicating clearly, deploying specialized knowledge and practicing the difficult soft skills needed for a 21st-century workplace.

While establishing these criteria in general education, we are teaching our students to see their degrees holistically. In our first-year program, called Connections, we engage students in becoming "intentional learners" who understand that a degree is more than a major. This program also gives students a conceptual grasp of how to use their educations to become well prepared for their professional, personal and civic lives. They can explain their proficiencies within and beyond their disciplines and understand they have soft skills that are at a premium.

While by no means a perfect model, what we’ve done at Utah State showcases the power of engaging faculty and staff as leaders to rethink how a quality degree is defined, assessed and explained. Such engagement couldn’t be more critical.

After all, if we are to change the culture of higher learning, we can't do it without the buy-in from those who perform it. Teachers and advisers want their students to succeed, and the D.Q.P. opens a refreshing conversation about success that focuses on the skills and knowledge students truly need.

The D.Q.P. helps give higher education practitioners an opportunity to do things differently. Let’s not waste it.

Norm Jones is a professor of history and chairman of general education at Utah State University. Harrison Kleiner is a lecturer of philosophy at Utah State.

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First Muslim University in U.S. Is Accredited

Zaytuna College has become the first accredited Muslim college in the United States, after the college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges granted its approval, The Los Angeles Times reported. Zaytuna is based in Berkeley, Calif.

Southern New Hampshire U. president takes temporary post at Education Department

Smart Title: 

Education Department brings in Southern New Hampshire president, a prominent voice on competency-based education, to pursue its goals on innovation.

State-Level Completion Data

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center this week released state-level student completion data. The nonprofit center tracked 2.7 million students who first enrolled in college in the fall of 2008, following them for 6 years. The report builds on the center's previous research, which found more encouraging graduation rates than other studies had identified, in part because the Clearinghouse has huge data sets that can follow students across institutions and state lines.

Nationwide, the report found that one in three community college students earned a credential at an institution other than the one at which they first enrolled. And 13 percent of students who began at a four-year public completed at a different institution. In five states (Iowa, North Dakota, Virginia, Kansas and Texas), more than 20 percent of students who began at a community college completed at a four-year institution. The report includes state-by-state tables and other breakouts of the data.

Sojourner-Douglass College Loses Accreditation

Sojourner-Douglass College, a private institution in Baltimore that focuses on black students and black communities, has lost an appeal to hold on to its accreditation, The Baltimore Sun reported. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education upheld an earlier decision that the college lacked adequate financial resources to operate. The revocation of accreditation will now take place at the end of the academic year, allowing current students to finish the semester. Students must attend colleges that are accredited to receive student aid. State officials said that they would help students transfer to other institutions.

Charles W. Simmons, president of the college, sent an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed in which he vowed to fight the Middle States decision. He blames changes in Pell Grant eligibility for creating financial challenges at the college. "Sojourner-Douglass continues to emerge from this devastating, unpredicted and external, disruptive challenge, and is positioning itself to adjust its finance and business plans, its operations, curricula and programs to enable it to immediately get back on course, again thrive, and realize its vision and mission, while challenging the Middle States decision and continuing to meet the needs of its targeted student population and its service communities," said Simmons.

Report seeks to add specificity to debate over states' performance-based funding models

Smart Title: 

Gates-funded report seeks to define and classify types of performance-based funding in 35 states, drawing tentative praise from researchers who have criticized the policies.

Gates Surveys Faculty Attitudes

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation this week released results from a survey it commissioned of faculty attitudes, with a particular focus on courseware that can "personalize" learning. FTI Consulting conducted the survey, receiving roughly 4,000 responses.

Daniel Greenstein, the foundation's director of postsecondary success, summarized the findings in a written statement. He said the survey found that a significant number of faculty members are "open to using courseware and other innovations to improve their students' success." The report also described specific obstacles faculty face in "evolving their practice," he said, and detailed what colleges can do to reduce or eliminate those obstacles.

“It’s vital to better understand the views of faculty and what supports they say they need to continue to advance student outcomes,” Greenstein said of the survey.

Defining 'Evidence of Learning'

An investment banking and consulting firm focused on education, Tyton Partners, is issuing a report today that attempts to create a framework for measuring "evidence of learning." The research, which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded, seeks to take a holistic approach to defining the "body of knowledge, skills and experience" people achieve in both formal and informal activities throughout their lifetime. Tyton, which until this month was Education Growth Advisors, also released a second report on the "supplier ecosystem" that surrounds related markets, such as accreditation services, portfolio platforms and assessment services.

Competency-Based Education Network Adds Members

The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) announced Monday that it has added 15 new college members. The Lumina-funded group now features 30 institutions and 4 public college systems, all of which either offer competency-based degrees or are creating them. The C-BEN was created for participants to share information on the emerging form of higher education. New members include several community colleges, a midsized for-profit chain and large universities, including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Texas System.

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