Assessment will make higher education accountable. That’s the claim of many federal and state education policy makers, as illustrated by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.  Improved assessment has become for many the lever to control rising tuition and to inform the public about how much students might learn (and whether they learn at all). But many in higher education worry that assessment can become a simplistic tool -- producing data and more work for colleges, but potentially little else.
Has the politicization of assessment deepened the divide between higher education and the public? How can assessment play the role wished for by policy makers to gauge accountability and affordability and also be a powerful tool for faculty members and college presidents and provosts to use to improve quality and measure competitiveness? Successful policies will include practices that lead to confidence, trust and satisfaction -- confidence by faculty members in the multiple roles of assessment, trust by the public that assessment will bring accountability, and satisfaction by the leaders such as the presidents that assessment will restore the public’s confidence in higher education. A tall order to be sure, but we believe assessment – done correctly -- can play a pivotal role in the resolution to the current debate on cost and quality.
For confidence, trust and satisfaction to occur, higher education and public officials must each take two steps. Higher education must first recognize that public accountability is a fact and an appropriate expectation. This means muting the calls by public higher education for more autonomy from state and federal government based simply on the declining percent of the annual higher education budget provided by public sources. This argument may help gain the attention of policy makers regarding the financial conundrums in higher education but it is not a suitable argument against accountability. Between federal and state sources, billions of dollars have been invested in higher education over the nearly 150 years of public higher education. The public deserves to know that its investments of the past are being used well today -- efficiently and effectively.
In response, federal and state policy makers need to publicly embrace the notion advocated as early as 1997 that quality is based on “high standards not standardization.” Higher education’s differentiation is a great gift to America. The cornerstone of American higher education -- institutions with a diversity of missions -- is meeting the educational needs of different kinds of students with different levels of preparation and ability to pay. It is important to recognize that assessment must match and reinforce the pluralism of American higher education. America is graced with many different kinds of colleges -- private, public, religious, secular, research, etc. It is important to have an assessment system that encourages colleges and universities to pursue unique missions.
A second step is for higher education to make transparent the evidence of quality that the public needs in order to trust higher education. “Just trust us,” is no longer sufficient as higher education has flexed its independence in setting ever increasing tuition rates in spite of the public’s belief that it has been excessive. Trust is built on transparency of evidence not mere declarations of quality. Practically a few indicators of quality that cut across higher education are going to be required. For example, surrogate and indirect measures of learning and development captured by student surveys, amount of need-based financial assistance, dollars per student invested in advising services, and dollars per faculty member dedicated to instructional and curricular development are some possibilities. Public opinion is heavily on the side of legislators and members of Congress on this issue.
For public policy makers, it is imperative to accept the notion that to assess is to share the evidence and then to care. Caring requires action and support not just criticism. Public policy makers must educate themselves about the complexity of higher education teaching, research and public engagement. This means accepting that the indicators of quality of the work of the academy are complex, as they should be. Whatever indicators are chosen, the benchmarks will vary by type of college or university. Take graduation rates as an example. Inevitably, highly selective colleges and universities are much more likely to have higher graduation rates than those with access as a goal. The students being admitted to the highly selective colleges and universities already have demonstrated their ability to achieve and have the study skills and background to be successful in college. Open access colleges and universities, on the other hand, have a greater percentage of students who are at risk, need to develop study skills in college, and are in general less prepared for the riggers of college study when compared to those with high achievement records out of high school. But these characteristics -- which frequently also result in lower graduation rates -- do not make these colleges and universities inadequate or not worthy of public support. Many great thinkers have said that a nation can be judged by how it treats its poor; this same argument works for education. The goal for everyone is to do better, starting where the students are -- not where we would like them to be when admitted.
With both sides changing their approaches, the public and higher education can productively focus on how together they can use assessment as an effective tool to determine quality and foster improvement. In doing so, we offer eight recommendations that if followed can offer the faculty the confidence they demand that assessment is a valid tool for communicating the evidence of student learning and development, the presidents the satisfaction that when all is said and done, it will have been worth the effort, and the public the trust that higher education is responsive to its concerns.
1. Recognize that assessment can serve both those within the academy and those outside of it, but different approaches to assessment are required. Faculty members and students can use assessment to provide the feedback that creates patterns and provides insight for their own discussion and decision making. To them assessment is not to be some distant mechanical process far removed from teaching and learning. On the other hand, parents, prospective students, collaborators, and policy makers also can benefit from the results of assessment but the evidence is very different. Through institutional assessment, they can know that specific colleges and universities are more or less effective as places to educate students, which types of students they best serve, and the best fit for jointly tackling society’s problems.
2. Focus on creating a culture of evidence as opposed to a culture of outcomes. Language and terms are important in this endeavor. The latter implies a rigidity of ends, whereas the former reflects the dynamic nature of learning, student development and solution making. A “teaching for the test” mentality cannot be the goal for most academic programs. We know from experience that assessment strategies that have relied heaviest on external standardized measures of achievement have been inadequate to detect with any precision any of the complex learning and developmental goals of higher education, e.g. critical thinking, commitment, values.
3. Accept that measurement of basic academic and vocationally oriented skills and competences may be appropriate for segments of the student population. For example, every time we get on an airplane we think of the minimum (and hopefully) high standards of the training of the pilots and the rigorous assessment procedures that “guarantee” quality assurance.
4. Avoid generic comparisons between colleges and universities as much as possible. A norm-referenced approach to testing guarantees that one half of the colleges and universities will be below average. The goal is not to be above average on some arbitrary criterion, but to achieve the unique mission and purpose of the specific college and university. A better strategy is to build off one’s strengths -- at both the individual and institutional level. Doing so reinforces an asset rather than a deficit view of both individual and institutional behavior leading to positive change and pride in institutional purpose. In order to benchmark progress, identify similar institutions. Such practices will encourage more differentiation in higher education and work to stem the tide of institutions clamoring to catch up with or be like what is perceived as a more prestigious college or university. "Be what you are, do it exceptionally well, and we will do what we can to fund you" would be a good state education policy.
5. Focus on tools that assess a range of student talent, not just one type or set of skills or knowledge. Multiple perspectives are critical to portraying the complexity of students’ achievements and the most effective learning and development environments for the enrolled students. All components of the learning environment, including student experiences outside the classroom and in the community must be assessed. We must measure what is meaningful, not give meaning to what we measure or test. Sometimes simple quantitative data such as graduation rates and records of employments are sufficient and essential for accountability purposes. But to give a full portrayal of student learning and development and environmental assessment, many types of evidence in addition to achievement tests are needed. Sometimes portfolio assessment will be appropriate, and at other times standardized exams will be sufficient.
6. Connect assessment with development and change. Assessment has been most useful when driven by commitment to l earn, create and develop, not when it has been mandated for purposes of administration and policy making. Assessment is the means, not the end. It is an important tool to be sure, but it always needs to point to some action by the participating stakeholders and parties.
7. Create campus conversations about establishing effective environments for the desirable ends of a college education. Assessment can contribute to this discussion. In its best from, assessment focuses discussion, not make decisions. People do that, and people need to be engaged in conversations and dialogue in ways that they focus not on the evidence but the solutions. As we stated earlier, to assess is to share and care. When groups of faculty get together to discuss the evaluations of their students they initially focus, somewhat defensively, on the assessment evidence (and the biases inherent in such endeavors), but as they get to know and trust each other they focus on how to help each other to improve.
8. Emphasize assessment’s role in “value added” strategies. Assessment should be informing the various publics about how the educational experiences of students or of the institutional engagement in the larger society is bringing value to the students and society. All parties need to get used to the idea that education can be conceptualized and interpreted in terms of a return on investment. But this can only be accomplished if we know what we are aiming for. This will be different for each college and university and that is why the dialogue with policy makers is so crucial. For some, the primary goal of college will focus on guiding students in their self discovery and contributing to society; for others it will be more on making a living; for yet others on understanding the world in which we live.
When both the public and higher education accept and endorse the principle that assessment is less about compliance or standardization and more about sharing, caring and transparency, then confidence, trust and satisfaction will be more likely. We believe that higher education must take the lead by focusing on student learning and development and engage with the public in collaborative decision making. If not, policy makers may conclude that they have only the clubs of compliance and standardization to get higher education’s attention.
Larry A. Braskamp, formerly senior vice President for academic affairs at Loyola University Chicago, is professor of education at the university. Steven Schomberg, retired in 2005 as Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and Institutional Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.