External demand is building for accountability in higher education. From discussions in state legislatures to the work of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education,  policy makers are increasingly asking how we can strengthen effectiveness and productivity in our colleges and universities.
Some skepticism by the academy is understandable. Those on the outside sometimes fail to recognize just how much those of us on many college campuses are already talking seriously about the need to measure what we do and to be constructively critical of ourselves. And some of us may not like the tone of the voices that insist on greater accountability or some of the related ideas, including suggestions to eliminate regional accreditation,  dismantle the federal student-aid system,  and test college students  to determine what they’ve learned.
But as assessment becomes a national imperative, college and university leaders face a major challenge: Many of our faculty colleagues are skeptical about the value of external mandates to measure teaching and learning, especially when those outside the academy propose to define the measures. Many faculty members do not accept the need for accountability, but the assessment movement’s success will depend upon faculty because they are responsible for curriculum, instruction and research. All of us -- policy makers, administrators and faculty -- must work together to develop language, strategies and practices that help us appreciate one another and understand the compelling need for assessment -- and why it is in the best interest of faculty and students.
Why is assessment important? We know from the work of researchers like Richard Hersh, Roger Benjamin, Mark Chun and George Kuh that college enrollment will be increasing by more than 15 percent nationally over the next 15 years (and in some states by as much as 50 percent). We also know that student retention rates are low, especially among students of color and low-income students. Moreover, of every 10 children who start 9th grade, only seven finish high school, five start college, and fewer than three complete postsecondary degrees. And there is a 20 percent gap in graduation rates between African Americans (42 percent) and whites (62 percent). These numbers are of particular concern given the rising higher education costs, the nation’s shifting demographics, and the need to educate more citizens from all groups.
At present, we do not collect data on student learning in a systematic fashion and rankings on colleges and universities focus on input measures, rather than on student learning in the college setting. Many people who have thought about this issue agree: We need to focus on “value added” assessment as an approach to determine the extent to which a university education helps students develop knowledge and skills. This approach entails comparing what students know at the beginning of their education and what they know upon graduating. Such assessment is especially useful when large numbers of students are not doing well -- it can and should send a signal to faculty about the need to look carefully at the “big picture” involving coursework, teaching, and the level of support provided to students and faculty.
Many in the academy, however, continue to resist systematic and mandated assessment in large part because of problems they see with K-12 initiatives like No Child Left Behind -- e.g., testing that focuses only on what can be conveniently measured, unacceptable coaching by teachers, and limiting what is taught to what is tested. Many academics believe that what is most valuable in the college experience cannot be measured during the college years because some of the most important effects of a college education only become clearer some time after graduation. Nevertheless, more institutions are beginning to understand that value-added assessment can be useful in strengthening teaching and learning, and even student retention and graduation rates.
It is encouraging that a number of institutions are interested in implementing value-added assessment as an approach to evaluate student progress over time and to see how they compare with other institutions. Such strategies are more effective when faculty and staff across the institution are involved. Examples of some best practices include the following:
- Constantly talking with colleagues about both the challenges and successful initiatives involving undergraduate education.
- Replicating successful initiatives (best practices from within and beyond the campus), in order to benefit as many students as possible.
- Working continuously to improve learning based on what is measured -- from advising practices and curricular issues to teaching strategies -- and making changes based on what we learn from those assessments.
- Creating accountability by ensuring that individuals and groups take responsibility for different aspects of student success.
- Recruiting and rewarding faculty who are committed to successful student learning (including examining the institutional reward structure).
- Taking the long view by focusing on initiatives over extended periods of time -- in order to integrate best practices into the campus culture.
We in the academy need to think broadly about assessment. Most important, are we preparing our students to succeed in a world that will be dramatically different from the one we live in today? Will they be able to think critically about the issues they will face, working with people from all over the globe? It is understandable that others, particularly outside the university, are asking how we demonstrate that our students are prepared to handle these issues.
Assessment is becoming a national imperative, and it requires us to listen to external groups and address the issues they are raising. At the same time, we need to encourage and facilitate discussions among our faculty -- those most responsible for curriculum, instruction, and research -- to grapple with the questions of assessment and accountability. We must work together to minimize the growing tension among groups -- both outside and inside the university -- so that we appreciate and understand different points of view and the compelling need for assessment.