Could the Wrong Assessment Kill the Liberal Arts?

Some critics say the Department of Education's push to test all colleges and universities with a standard set of learning outcomes is a bad idea for traditional academic studies.
July 21, 2008

Unlikely critics gathered Friday to offer strong criticisms of the Education Department's push for assessment using standardized instruments. Among the critics were Diane Auer Jones, president of the Washington Campus, who recently stepped down from her position as secretary for the Department's Office of Postsecondary Education. She and others told Congressional staff and university administrators that the liberal arts, as taught by colleges and universities around the country, are endangered by these proposed federal assessment efforts. Some say these tested assessments apply the approach of No Child Left Behind to postsecondary education, making them both incompatible and counterintuitive.

Peter Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, a group that has long pushed for more rigor in the college curriculum and advocated an emphasis on the importance of core knowledge, said the current debate surrounding the measurement of learning outcomes is analogous to a theoretical game of tug of war, with fundamentally different types of thinkers and schools of thought on either end.

On one side, Wood envisions American figures of technical practicality, embodied by individuals such as Benjamin Franklin and Eli Whitney. On the other end of the rope, Wood describes more “intellectual explorers,” represented by scholars such as Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. This creative tension of ideas, he said, is nowhere more present than in American higher education. Furthering his tug-of-war analogy, Wood asked those in attendance to imagine a Harpo Marx-like figure with a pair of scissors cutting the rope between these two opposing sides, thus representing the collapse of the liberal arts as most educators know of and instruct them. According to Wood, in light of recent discussion and debate from the Department of Education, the mischievous Marx-like figure is none other than Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and her scissors the outcome assessments being touted during her term in office.

The department’s insistence on testing for specific learning outcomes – even in the liberal arts, where outcomes may be less obvious – provide what he called a “severely impoverished view of what higher education should be.” The push to focus on learning outcomes at the college level, according to Wood, are “a distraction and, at worse, a menace” for instructors. Promoting learning outcome assessments, Wood said, assumes all collegiate courses have a specified skill-set of knowledge that can be identified in advance of having these courses instructed. In his experience, he noted that some instructors simply ignore these outcome guidelines and teach as they normally would have done so, regardless of their listing.

“We bluff,” Wood said of some instructors who identify quantifiable sets of skills or knowledge, noting that accreditation reviews typically verify only what a college sets out to accomplish. “We think this is nonsense. We think this is crap. We put on paper what we’re going to do and then do something else anyway.”

Though Jones, a self-professed advocate of rigorous academic assessments, shared some of Wood’s criticisms, she was less critical of Spellings and the department’s intentions. Jones said, when faced with the pressures of assessing the value higher education, Spellings did, what she said “all secretaries are supposed to do,” and asked the hard questions of her colleagues concerning an arguably underperforming system. Considering American institutions are autonomous in nature and serve the needs of their students and not directly those of the government, Jones said accreditation is the most effective tool the department has to assess the value of institutions.

She also noted that some accreditors do not know how to handle or classify certain courses being taught under the label of the “liberal arts.” Jones noted, for example, hearing about a course entitled “Pornography and Victorian Poetry: A Modern Approach.” Not judging the value of such off-beat courses, Jones questioned whether accreditors know what to make of such courses. With accreditors increasingly under the pressure of the government, Jones explained the potential focus on learning outcomes, in relation to the sometime indefinable assessment of classroom skills, can only show the success of admissions officers and not always that of teachers. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s focus on learning outcome assessments were “in good intent,” according to Jones, but “shortsighted.”

“It reduces colleges to the least common denominator,” Jones said, who proceeded to use the example of a multi-faceted and specialized biology department. “I don’t think it’s possible to determine national standards for 20 different [disciplines] of biology.”

Jones further emphasized, with reassurance from Wood, that the issue of learning outcome assessments and opposition to them is not a partisan one. Indeed, many Congressional Democracts share the education secretary's enthusiasm for the approach. Wood also noted that the conversation among the scholars at the event invited to discuss the topic by American Academy of Distance Learning was solely meant to “spark a thoughtful resistance” to this idea of institutional assessment in higher education.

“I believe that demands that scholars in the humanities transform what they teach into learning outcomes defined as distinct learned behaviors is a contemporary de-railment [sic] of what we do – this time the derailment has forced upon us, not by religious authorities, but the federal government,” stated Richard J. Bishirjian, president of the American Academy of Distance Learning and host of the event, in an written introduction.

Spokespeople from the Department of Education did not respond to a request for a comment about the statements from the day's panelists

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