A class at Sarah Lawrence College

Rejecting the Standardized Test

Sarah Lawrence, faced with the pressure to assess student learning, bypasses the commonly used tools and invents its own approach. It's not nationally normed, and this college is proud of that.

February 12, 2014

Ever since accreditors started demanding evidence of learning outcomes, many colleges have started using "value added" tests that are given to a sample of freshmen and seniors to measure gains in various skills. While the tests have their advocates, many college presidents or provosts (if asked about the tests they boast about giving when talking to their accreditors) say privately that they view these tests as a box to check. The accreditor can verify that College X measures student learning. One hundred or so freshman and seniors have been given a free pizza dinner (or some other reward) for taking the test. Everyone is happy.

And no, there's not necessarily much attention paid to the results. Many faculty members at institutions with these tests (and that's most colleges) aren't even aware of the tests, or their results. But the box has been checked off for the college.

Sarah Lawrence decided not to check the box. Instead, it created its own assessment system -- not using any test but requiring a new analysis of each student after each course by every faculty member. The system, which thus far has the blessing of Sarah Lawrence's accreditor, does not seek to compare the college or its students to those elsewhere, only to evaluate whether students are progressing at meeting goals that a faculty-administration committee set as reflecting Sarah Lawrence's values.

Defining 2 Critical Skills

Think Critically

  • Identifying relevant issues, debates and open questions.
  • Being able to understand multiple perspectives and synthesize arguments.
  • Being able to assess the soundness of the argument
  • Being able to apply problem-solving methodologies to real world situations.

Accept and Act on Criticism

  • Hearing constructive criticism with an open mind.
  • Making revisions in response to suggestions.
  • Building on lessons learned.

Karen Lawrence, the president, says that the assessment system "is right out of the culture of what goes on here, of what happens with students and faculty members." She says she found nationally normed tests to be "not authentic." If it is important for institutions to assess student learning, and Lawrence says she believes it is, it's the job of colleges to come up with ways to do so that are consistent with their missions and approach to learning.

Sarah Lawrence prides itself on individualized education. Ninety percent of courses are seminars (maximum enrollment of 15), and if that's not personal enough, each seminar is built around biweekly one-on-one "conferences" at which each student in the course meets privately with the instructor to discuss progress, develop projects and so forth. Faculty members don't offer just grades, but a narrative evaluation for each student in each course.

So what does assessment look like that reflects that spirit?

The faculty and administration agreed on six "critical abilities" that they believe all graduates should possess: the ability to...

  • Think critically.
  • Express ideas effectively through written communication.
  • Envisage and work independently on a project.
  • Exchange ideas effectively through oral communication.
  • Bring innovation to their work.
  • Accept and act on criticism.

For each of those categories there are subcategories to illustrate what's covered. (See box above right for examples for two of the abilities.) Then faculty members must evaluate each student on each skill at the end of each course. Students must be determined to be in one of these categories for each skill.

  • Not applicable.
  • Not yet developed.
  • Beginning to develop.
  • Developing.
  • Satisfactorily developed.
  • Well-developed.
  • Excellent.

The idea is not that all students at all times will be excellent, but that there should be a progression on all of the skills as students advance toward their degrees. Faculty advisers, known as "dons" at Sarah Lawrence, receive all of the scores about each of their students, so that they can use the information when discussing educational goals. As time goes on, college faculty members and leaders will also see where the faculty collectively see students doing well, and at what stages of their education, and where there may be room for improvement.

While Sarah Lawrence eschews standardized tests, Lawrence argues, its traditions are actually quite consistent with assessment. "This is our culture of evaluation," she says.

She also says that, by agreeing on these qualities, the faculty was giving itself a framework through which to think about courses and what they accomplish -- not with the goal that every course would alter students in all ways, but to think about whether significant progress is made toward some goals.

In much of the public debate about education, Lawrence says, there is "a false dichotomy" between a liberal arts education and preparing students for careers. But this list of qualities for students to attain is entirely consistent with surveys of what business leaders say they want, and with what liberal arts colleges provide, she says. By stating them in this way, she adds, she hopes to help people move past that dichotomy.

A number of the qualities Sarah Lawrence is evaluating (such as critical thinking) could likely be embraced by other liberal arts colleges, she says. But some -- such as the emphasis on accepting and responding to criticism -- reflect the "particular pedagogy of Sarah Lawrence," with its emphasis on regular critiques by professors, with the idea that students will use those discussions to improve the projects on which they are focused.

Kanwal Singh, associate dean of the college, says she thought it was important for liberal arts colleges not only to point out the limitations of testing, but to make clear that they are looking at how students learn and grow over four years. "All of us are concerned about how students are progressing, and the students and parents who making a huge investment are entitled to know that we are asking these questions."

Peggy Gould, who teaches in the dance program and was involved in planning the new system, says the faculty was involved throughout the process, holding long discussions about the key abilities, and how they would play out in different areas of study.

While she is used to the narrative evaluations she writes of every student, the new rubric was challenging for her, forcing her, she says, to think about student achievement in different ways. And the experience has her thinking about her narrative evaluations as well.

It would not surprise her if, over time, faculty members find some categories that don't work well, or others that they want to add, she says. "There continues to be a conversation, and I think people are comfortable with that. If even one faculty member has a concern, we are all concerned."

That said, she thinks the new system is working well so far -- and is superior to introducing any standardized test to measure student learning. “It’s impossible for standardize testing to actually evaluate the real dynamic intelligence of students," she says. "This is not about cookie cutters. We are individuals.”

 

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