Another Call for Assessment

Groups seek joint statement on accountability and the importance of defining purpose of college -- and confront skepticism on whether measurement efforts go too far.
November 20, 2007

As college associations unveil new ways for colleges to report on what they do, and Congress debates how much accreditors should ask of colleges, an effort has been going on for months to craft a national statement on student learning and assessment.

Drafts of the document leaked to Inside Higher Ed, by educators concerned about the statement's direction, suggest that colleges commit to "gather evidence" about the success of students in meeting certain education goals; that the evidence should be shared widely and used by accreditors; and that in some cases this material should be used to compare institutions. "Such information and evidence allows comparisons, where appropriate, between and among institutions and may suggest areas for improvement," the draft says. At the same time, the document asserts that the "primary responsibility for achieving excellence" rests with colleges, and not outside bodies.

The effort is being coordinated by the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, along with the Teagle Foundation. A final version of the plan is expected to be released to the public in January, at the accrediting group's annual meeting.

The document takes a more philosophical approach to higher education than some other recent efforts, calling on colleges not only to report on what they accomplish, but to set out to accomplish certain specific things. For instance, the draft says that while goals should vary by institutional mission and student body, goals generally should include "the enrichment of both our democratic society and individual lives through the study of science, social science, the humanities and the arts." The rhetoric of the document -- while containing references to economic competitiveness and the global economy -- also has specific references to the liberal arts in a way that has not always been present in some recent calls for more accountability and assessment.

The aim of the draft was to have numerous college associations sign on to the framework outlined, with the idea of then encouraging their members to join in "a compact" to commit to the document. Some higher education leaders have strongly backed the efforts, arguing that the best way to fend off government intrusion is for academe to set its own standards.

But parts of the document are controversial. While education groups agree that colleges should have goals and that they should consider how to improve the education they offer, many fear that moves to measure student learning will inevitably lead to the use of standardized testing and to facile comparisons of institutions. As a result of such criticisms, the draft is no longer called a "compact," and plans to have groups endorse it at the time it is released have been dropped.

The American Council of Learned Societies explicitly rejected the effort and an e-mail from Pauline Yu, president of the council, explaining the rationale for doing so, is circulating among some critics of the effort. (Yu could not be reached and was not among those who provided information about the draft statement.) In her memo, Yu called the draft "conceptually flawed" and "rhetorically risky" and expressed fear that it could undo some of the qualities of American higher education -- "decentralized, market-driven and pluralistic" -- that have led to its success.

Noting that the draft calls for colleges not only to develop and measure standards, but to show how they would use those standards and the measurements to engage in "systematic improvement," Yu wrote that colleges could be setting themselves up to divert resources and invite more government scrutiny, not less.

"Where will the resources come from for this investment in an entirely new level of bureaucracy that will be devising programs and gathering evidence? Teaching? Research? Paying for a new ETS? Wouldn't we rather have those energies and funds devoted to strategies that we do know improve student learning, like smaller classes and capstone courses?" Yu wrote.

In addition, Yu said that the draft "explicitly invites more monitoring from the government and, indeed, perhaps unwittingly offers up its process as the yardstick for determining funding and regulation. The annual reporting it proposes runs the risk of fueling the ongoing movement to reduce educational autonomy -- more testing, more bureacracy, more captious regulation, more lawsuits."

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, said that some of the concerns expressed during the process of creating the draft have been addressed. "People will be pleasantly surprised," she said. Schneider said that the leaked draft didn't reflect some of those changes, although she declined to release a current version of the draft.

The effort, she stressed, was not focused on tests. "AAC&U is deeply committed to forms of assessment that are anchored in the curriculum, that are supervised by faculty and result in strengthening the quality of learning," she said. "The document is not about testing. We did not have in mind testing as the primary focus."

Schneider contrasted the document she has helped prepare with others. "If there is one thing that is fresh to this discussion, it is the call to define our educational purposes first," she said. "Most of the discussions have been a frantic hunt for the right measure to report scores. This is about a thoughtful quest for the right aims to guide learning."

While Schneider said she understood the concerns of some critics, she said it was important for higher education to respond to public demands for accountability. "One of the primary missions of all colleges and universities and is the quality of learning. Therefore it is crucially important that colleges and universities themselves be the primary leader in defining aims and creating forms of assessment that are worthy of our mission." (Schneider's organization is among three higher education groups that received a $2.4 million Education Department grant to develop and test tools for measuring student learning outcomes.)

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said his group supported this effort -- along with other assessment initiatives being started by various academic groups. He said that given the diversity of higher education, it wasn't surprising that disputes would surface over the best way to proceed. But he said it was important for college organizations to move ahead in developing systems they could support.

"The more activities that are under way, the harder it gets for critics to say colleges and universities aren't engaged with these issues," he said.


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