Assessment vs. Action

Vast majority of colleges have systems in place to measure what undergraduates learn, survey finds. But using that information? That’s another story.
October 26, 2009

The assessment movement has firmly taken hold in American higher education, if you judge it by how many colleges are engaged in measuring what undergraduates learn. But if you judge by how many of them use that information to do something, the picture is different.

Those findings come from a report being released today by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, a new research organization that is trying to promote better use of assessment tools, and to provide information about what colleges are actually doing. The report is based on survey responses from a national sample of colleges and universities -- public, private and for-profit, two year and four year, large and small. Answers were provided by provosts at 1,518 institutions, 53 percent of those surveyed.

The results indicate that -- for all the talk by some higher education critics about the lack of assessment in higher education -- a lot is going on. Among all institutions, 92 percent are using at least one assessment tool with institutionally valid samples and two-thirds use three or more measures at the same time. Ninety percent use at least one institutional-level tool while also having another approach to program assessment.

The most common approach used for institutional assessment is a nationally normed survey of students. Seventy-six percent of colleges are using surveys of that sort. The percentage of colleges using standardized tests of knowledge and skills (exams such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, for example) is much smaller, but still significant, at 39 percent. (But the survey found more attention to learning outcomes at the program level, especially by community colleges.)

Much smaller percentages of colleges report that assessment is based on external evaluations of student work (9 percent), student portfolios (8 percent) and employer interviews (8 percent).

The top uses of whatever assessment systems are in place appear to be related to another form of assessment: accreditation. Asked to describe how they use assessment results (using a four-point scale from 1 as “not at all” to 4 as “very much”), only two items topped three 3 (“quite a bit”): institutional self-study for accreditation and program self-study for accreditation.

While such uses as “revising learning goals” and “informing strategic planning” got past 2 (meaning “some” use), issues such as evaluating professors, reconsidering admissions standards, and redefining readiness for upper-level course work were all far behind.

Clear sector differences emerged in the questions on use of assessment. On every question about whether assessment is used in various ways, for-profit colleges reported the most frequent use. Among nonprofit institutions, community colleges were more likely to use assessment data for aligning curricular expectations, improving instructional quality and measuring student readiness for certain levels of courses. Baccalaureate institutions were more likely than other sectors to use results to inform faculty promotion and tenure decisions.

When factoring in selectivity measures, another pattern emerges. The most academically selective colleges and universities are as likely as others to collect assessment data, but they don’t appear to do as much with the findings. Competitive institutions are much less likely than others to look at assessment results when considering learning goals, strategic planning and allocating resources, for example.

The report on the results suggests that while institutional culture may explain why competitive colleges are less engaged with assessment, that inaction may be too focused on questions of prestige, as opposed to student learning.

“Some faculty and staff at prestigious, highly selective campuses wonder why documenting something already understood to be superior is warranted. They have little to gain and perhaps a lot to lose,” the report says. “On the other hand, many colleagues at lower-status campuses often feel pressed to demonstrate their worth; some worry that they may not fare well in comparison with their better-resourced, more selective counterparts. Here too, anxiety may morph into a perceived threat if the results disappoint.”

The report urges faculty and presidents at all kinds of institutions to take assessment seriously, and to move beyond simply using it as a way of demonstrating accountability but to make it a part of a system for improvement.

The provosts in the survey said what they most needed to more effectively use assessment was more faculty involvement, with 66 percent citing this need. The percentage was even greater (80 percent) at doctoral institutions.

George Kuh, director of the institute, said that he viewed the results as "cause for cautious optimism," and that the reality of so much assessment activity makes it possible to work on making better use of it.

The institute is a joint effort of Indiana University, the University of Illinois and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.


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