Alarmed echoes of “the feds are coming” reverberate in the halls of academe as Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’s Department of Education confers with higher education representatives to improve quality and public accountability. This so-called “negotiation” process  follows on the heels of the Spellings Commission’s  report, "A Test of Leadership,"  calling for improved quality and public accountability. The Department discussions and hearings have morphed into recommendations for a new degree of federal intervention. Campus leaders see the intrusion as unprecedented – but so too is the problem it aims to address.
Education -- pre-school through college -- is the primary means of improving human capital and is therefore understood to be the single most important ingredient in the ability of America to compete in the global economy. But there is a growing unease about what now passes for quality in undergraduate education, a vocal concern led not by angry students, as in the ‘60s, but by parents, business, political and academic leaders who sense a dangerous hollowing of an increasingly precarious ivory tower.
Virtually every study within and outside the academy acknowledges that we are not doing as well as we should and that we need to significantly improve our undergraduate colleges -- not only to compete globally, but equally importantly, to enrich an active democracy here at home, a public life marked by liberty, dissent, and robust civic engagement. Former Govs. James B. Hunt (of North Carolina) and Garry Carruthers (of New Mexico), the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Business-Higher Education Forum are among the groups and policy makers that have acknowledged a major performance gap in undergraduate education.
Higher education has neither developed adequate metrics to assess learning nor demonstrated a willingness to publish such results when they are available, content to rely on and participate in, while at the same time damning,  spurious college guides and reputation rankings. And it is not uncommon to hear faculty and administrators across the country protest that most of what we teach is too complex to be measured, that the diversity of college and university missions precludes one-size-fits-all assessment, or that the market place is the only required arbiter of quality. This implicit "trust us" attitude is now confronted by a market place that is questioning quality and is no longer accepting what amounts to higher education’s privilege of what is in essence a form of “faith-based” entitlement.
Joining the critics and jumping into the vacuum created by higher education leaders perceived as unwilling to take on the necessary reform agenda to substantially improve quality, the Spellings Commission identified accountability as the fundamental issue, dependent, it said, on assessment of value-added learning.
The Commission’s logic on this is as follows: (1) undergraduate education quality is inadequate given the challenges we face in the 21st century; (2) the solution to quality improvement requires a more transparent accountability; (3) assessment, especially value-added learning assessment, is fundamental to the improvement of quality and accountability. (I should note here, in full disclosure, that the Collegiate Learning Assessment, with which I am closely affiliated, was cited as an assessment tool by the commission.) As the commission itself wrote straightforwardly:
We believe that improved accountability is vital to ensuring the success of all the other reforms we propose. Colleges and universities must become more transparent about cost, price, and student success outcomes, and must willingly share this information with students and families. Student achievement, which is inextricably connected to institutional success, must be measured by institutions on a “value-added” basis that takes into account students’ academic baseline when assessing their results.
The Spellings Commission got it right -- quality needs to improve, accountability must become far more transparent, and assessing learning, including value-added assessment, is crucial to both. This is not to say, however, that this requires that one single test be imposed on all institutions or that that we know how to measure all that is worth learning. But it is to say that transparent, systematic learning assessment can be a powerful force for improvement and is necessary for regaining public trust in the public good served by higher education.
There is an apparent conflict between assessment for improvement and assessment for accountability. I say “apparent” because I do not think this is an either/or situation; assessment for improvement and accountability are inextricably related. The public has every right to expect that it is higher education’s educational and professional duty to systematically assess its impact on student learning as an essential condition for improvement and transparent accountability.
From an improvement perspective, student learning is higher education’s raison d’ etre, and we know that appropriate and timely feedback to students and faculty increases student learning and can usefully inform institutional change. From an accountability perspective, professional training and the sanctioning status it confers obligates the academy to be transparent in its endeavors, something expected of all professions. Moreover, colleges and universities are subsidized by the public, either directly through tax revenues and/or through tax exemptions, and thus we do have responsibility for rigorous student and institutional assessment and public accountability. The difficult issue is to make sure appropriate assessments are used and that the “stakes” are fair.
Timing is crucial. Lest the issues of learning assessment and institutional accountability be allowed to become the handmaiden of state and federal politics as many believe has occurred in the K-12 sector, the academy must act now. For this to happen, higher education needs to take the professional lead and control on issues of learning assessment and public accountability, a strategy endorsed a few weeks ago  by the Modern Language Association.
It wrote: "It is hard to disagree with the argument that colleges should be held publicly accountable for the quality of education they provide and that careful assessment of what our students learn is a reasonable means of demonstrating such accountability. If these principles are applied in an intelligent fashion and with full cooperation by American colleges and universities, the report of the Spellings Commission can usefully spur them in their continuing effort to improve the education they offer."
The operative phrase is “intelligent fashion and with full cooperation by American colleges and universities.” During the commission hearings and after the issuance of its final report, many in the academy feared and argued strenuously against any imposition of a federally mandated test reminiscent of the NCLB regime of high-stakes state tests. The academy, however, is in a somewhat weak position to be claiming “foul” given that it is the self-regulated arbiter of quality via accreditation standards, not to mention complicit in supplying data to and de facto affirming current ranking and college guidebook as quality indicators that we know are invalid. Measures of quality such as reputation, retention and graduation rates, and alumni giving, for example, are predicted mostly by admissions selectivity and have not been show to be predictors of learning.
Nor has the academy been a staunch defender of its own accreditation processes, accepted at best publicly as a necessary evil and, in private, loathed and demeaned, especially by the “elite” institutions that perceive the need for accreditation as beneath their presumed quality. The commission, too, excoriated the current accrediting process as ineffective for relying too heavily on “input” variables and reputation. Interestingly (some have suggested “cynically”), Secretary Spellings’s strategy is not to create a new structure for control but rather attempts to enlist the cooperation of colleges and universities by utilizing the treasured academic value of peer review in a more rigorous accreditation process! The academy seems to have been hoisted on its own petard.
To accomplish this feat, the Department of Education, through its legal authority to recognize and regulate accrediting agencies, is proposing a far more robust set of standards  requiring emphasis on learning assessment and public disclosure of such data. The “negotiations” over accrediting principles and standards are in their late stages and for the moment there is relative quiet from the campuses. Whether or not this is the proverbial calm before the storm, fatigued acquiescence, or principled agreement remains to be seen. Or, some believe it might all go away, that the department has overstepped its legal authority and will be cut short by a Democratic Congress or delayed until a savior arrives in the next election cycle.
While I appreciate fully how the academy has led itself into what may be a box canyon, my own experience as a faculty member and administrator in public and private colleges and universities causes me to believe that neither higher education nor this country would be well served by additional federal control. I suggest, however, that higher education would be wise to jump at the chance to strengthen institutional peer review via the accreditation structure.
By this I mean that the academy not wait to have something imposed but rather take the offensive and quickly accept responsibility for developing appropriate standards and learning outcome measures, and reform the accreditation process by revising standards and increasing transparency. I am not naïve -- it may be too late to ward off federal intervention -- but a stance the academy ought to take would sound something like this: “We can and must improve our quality; we commit to making use of our considerable, collective research capabilities to develop, pilot and implement a variety of appropriate learning outcome measures; and we agree to construct protocols for sharing such data with the public.”
How best to begin? I propose that higher education be given five years for such a development process and financial support from federal incentive funds of $10 million per year, to be matched by institutions, corporations and foundations for consortiums to develop such measures. I propose a “summit” meeting of regional accreditors and the leading national organizations in higher education to be convened in the next few months to create a comprehensive and coherent action plan resulting in a framework and criteria for future self-selected consortium proposals to access the pool of funds designated for such purposes from the combined contributions of the federal government, corporations and foundations. We can argue later which organization would be best suited to holding and administering such funding. The summit would need to be perhaps a weeklong event (rather than the one-day affair recently held by Secretary Spellings) and certainly there are venues like Wingspread or the Aspen Institute that are equipped to facilitate such a gathering.
This proposal is hardly radical. The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) have proposed a “Voluntary System of Accountability for Undergraduate Education” (VSA) that accepts the need for improved quality and accountability and the need to develop appropriate measures of learning. The Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) has for the past three years engaged many of its members in a consortium to try a variety of learning outcome measures.
The Teagle Foundation has been funding a number of consortiums across the country to develop and implement a variety of learning assessment measures. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has for years convened conferences on assessment, teaching, and curricula and has issued a strong plea for use of student outcomes for accountability. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is on record supporting improved assessment and accountability. And most of the states and each of the professional and regional accrediting associations have stipulated the need for such data as part of their accountability standards.
The work mentioned above is hardly exhaustive of what is taking place in this country, but clearly we need to see something more convergent, coherent, timely, and transparent. And what I am proposing is hardly sufficient to the task ahead. Surely we need to reform incentives and rewards for promotion and tenure, not to mention how faculty are educated in doctoral programs if learning outcomes are to be a fundamental criterion of institutional quality. And the incentives and rewards for public institutions dependent on state support must change as well.
What is needed before anything else, however, is for higher education to get its professional and collective act together immediately on the issues of learning assessment, accountability, and the role of accreditation lest the cry, “the feds are coming” result in a federal No College Left Behind.
Richard H. Hersh is a former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Trinity College; former vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire and Drake University and former vice president for research at the University of Oregon; a co-director of the Collegiate Learning Assessment Project; and co-editor of Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk.