Whose Metrics?

As community colleges begin national accountability project, Oregon experience shows that the numbers that lawmakers may want don’t always overlap with the ones educators need.
October 12, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- Accountability was much discussed here last week at the annual meeting of the Association of Community College Trustees, and everyone agreed – in theory – that institutions should have to report on measures that demonstrate their quality or lack thereof. There were presentations on, and general support expressed for, the effort started by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education -- announced just before the meeting -- to develop a voluntary national accountability system for community colleges.

But what should the measures be? Two educators from Oregon started a discussion of their state’s accountability by asking the trustees in the audience how they could tell if their institutions were successful. The answers were varied and full of nuance, with trustees talking about the different groups their institutions serve and the range of goals for students and communities. Then the Oregonians asked the trustees if they thought their legislators understood those complicated measures. The crowd laughed and some suggested that maybe 10 percent did, if that.

The aim of the question wasn’t to dispute the need of state policy makers to have measures they understand and trust. Rather, Oregon’s community college leaders have decided they need measures beyond what the state is asking for if they are to meet the state goals.

Camille Preus, commissioner of the Oregon Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development, discussed intense efforts over the last three years in her state to create the right measures.

The larger context in Oregon -- as in the United States -- is a goal of increasing college attainment. President Obama has set a goal of all Americans obtaining at least one year of postsecondary education. In Oregon, legislators, the governor, and state boards that oversee education have agreed on a goal, by 2025, of having 40 percent of the adult public have a bachelor’s degree, 40 percent having an associate degree or a certificate recognized by employers, and the remaining 20 percent at least a high school diploma.

To get there, the Legislature in 2007 -- a year in which community colleges were given a healthy increase in state support -- also agreed on a set of “key performance measures” for the colleges, requiring reporting by each of the 17 community college measures, and giving them year-by-year goals.

This “disaggregation of data,” Preus said, strengthened the power of the data but also raised problems. It became impossible for colleges to hide any weaknesses. But she also said that there was potential for unfairness as legislators could look at the 17 colleges and want to know “why college X isn’t doing what college Y is doing.”

She gave as an example the legislatively set goal for the percentage of students at each Oregon community college who the next year have transferred to an institution in the Oregon university system (this year’s goal is 15.2 percent). Meeting such a goal is much easier, she noted, for the community colleges that are in the same community as four-year institutions than it is for her most remote institution, which is 250 miles from a university.

Among the other measures adopted by the lawmakers as key indicators:

  • Percentage of students enrolled in either remedial or ESL programs who complete them. (The goal for 2010 is 63.7 percent, up from 47 percent in 2007.)
  • The percentage of students in nursing who complete the program. (Next year’s goals is 73.7 percent.)
  • The number of professional / technical degrees awarded each year. (Next year’s target is 5,101.)
  • The percentage of students in associate degree programs who earn associate degrees. (The target for next year is 31.6 percent.)

The measures are almost all “outcome measures,” in the parlance of accountability. Preus said that there was nothing wrong with that, and that these measures were important. “But these were the legislators’ measures, not ours,” she said.

What the measures prompted was an in-depth study (with outside consulting help) on what was actually going on at the community colleges, and the results were in some ways disturbing, she said. Some of what was discovered wouldn’t have shown up in the state-required reporting, but raised real questions about the ability of the state’s education system to meet the goals it set for itself.

For example, she said that the study drew attention to the relatively high educational attainment of those who move to Oregon, higher in fact than the state's averages -- a good sign about the state’s ability to attract talent, but also a sign that it wasn’t reaching desired levels of educational attainment for those who are growing up there.

“We found lots of areas where we are not as good as we thought we were,” she said.

A series of meetings involving the community colleges led to a sense that to meet the broader goals set by the state, new measures were also needed. Many of these are “process point” measures, that report on student progress prior to their end goal, rather than outcome measures. And yet Preus said these measures are the ones that identify the ways individual colleges need to change what they are doing, in a way that the state-set goals do not.

So the community colleges have now agreed to collect (and discuss internally) the following “student success indicators”:

  • High school students enrolling directly into college.
  • The percentages of those enrolling at college and non-college levels of work in math, reading and writing.
  • The credits earned each year toward an associate of arts degree.
  • The credits earned each year toward a career or technical certificate.
  • Semester to semester persistence rates.
  • Fall to fall persistence rates.
  • The percentage of GED students who advance to the next level of their programs.
  • GED fall to fall persistence.
  • The percentage of English as a Second Language students who advance to college level work.

Laura Massey, director of institutional effectiveness at Portland Community College, said that much of this data already existed at each college (as it did for the state’s measures), but was not necessarily being shared in consistent ways.

Preus said that now that the colleges have agreed on these indicators, they are going to collect and compare the data. Eventually, she said, goals will likely be agreed upon for each of those measures, but this may be a process led by the colleges, not the legislators. Asked if the goals might vary from college to college, Massey (the institutional representative of the two) nodded enthusiastically and Preus agreed that would likely be the case.

Another stage of the process, she said, was talking to legislators about the new measures -- and not doing so in any way that suggests a lack of commitment to the state-set measures.

In meetings with legislators, Preus said that she stresses that the colleges are committed to the state agenda, and are in fact making progress as well as reporting the required information every semester. “I think that gets the colleges some credibility,” she said. It’s also important to remember, she added, that the legislative priorities deserve respect.

But she is also talking about the additional measures, and why the colleges are collecting that information. While the colleges could have tried -- without their own measures -- to have noted what was lacking in the state measures, Preus doubts that would have worked. “You are going to max out in your 30-second elevator talk before you explain,” she said.

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