Memo From the Chairman

Charles Miller, the head of the Education Department's higher ed commission, offers his emerging views on "accountability."

January 24, 2006

College officials and members of the public are watching with intense interest -- and, in some quarters, trepidation -- the proceedings of the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Given that interest, the following is a memorandum that the panel's chairman, Charles Miller, wrote to its members offering his thinking about one of its thorniest subjects: accountability. As always on Inside Higher Ed, comments are welcomed below.


To: Members, The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education

From: Charles Miller, Chairman   

Dear Commission Members:

The following is a synopsis of several ongoing efforts, in support of the Commission, in one of our principal areas of focus, "Accountability." The statements and opinions presented in the memo are mine and are not intended to be final conclusions or recommendations, although there may be a developing consensus.
I would appreciate feedback, directly or through the staff, in any form that is most convenient. This memo will be made public in order to promote and continue an open dialogue on measuring institutional performance and student learning in higher education.


As a Commission, our discussions to date have shown a number of emerging demands on the higher education system, which require us to analyze, clarify and reframe the accountability discussion. Four key goals or guiding principles in this area are beginning to take shape. 
First, more useful and relevant information is needed. The federal government currently collects a vast amount of information, but unfortunately policy makers, universities, students and taxpayers continue to lack key information to enable them to make informed decisions.
Second, we need to improve, and even fix, current accountability processes, such as accreditation, to ensure that our colleges and universities are providing the highest quality education to their students. 
Third, we need to do a much better job of aligning our resources to our broad societal needs. In order to remain competitive, our system of higher education must provide a world-class education that prepares students to compete in a global knowledge economy.  
And finally, we need to assure that the American public understand through access to sufficient information, particularly in the area of student learning, what they are getting for their investment in a college education.       

Commission Meeting (12/6/05)

At our Nashville meeting, the Commission heard three presentations from a panel on “Accountability.” Panelists represented the national, state and institutional perspectives and in the subsequent discussion, an informal consensus developed that there is a critical need for improved public information systems to measure and compare institutional performance and student learning in consumer-friendly formats, defining consumers broadly as students, families, taxpayers, policy makers and the general public.


Needs for a Modern University Education

The college education needed for the competitive, global environment in the future is far more than specific, factual knowledge; it is about capability and capacity to think and develop and continue to learn. An insightful quote from an educator describes the situation well:

“We are attempting to educate and prepare students (hire people in the workforce) today so that they are ready to solve future problems, not yet identified, using technologies not yet invented, based on scientific knowledge not yet discovered.”    

--Professor Joseph Lagowski, University of Texas at Austin


Trends in Measuring Student Learning

There is gathering momentum for measuring through testing what students learn or what skills they acquire in college beyond a traditional certificate or degree.

Very recently, new testing instruments have been developed which measure an important set of skills to be acquired in college: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communications.

The Commission is reviewing promising new developments in the area of student testing, which indicate a significant improvement in measuring student learning and related institutional performance. Three independent efforts have shown promise:

  • A multi-year trial by the Rand Corporation, which included 122 higher education institutions, led to the development of a test measuring critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other skills. As a result of these efforts, a new entity called Collegiate Learning Assessment has been formed by researchers involved and the tests will now be further developed and marketed widely.
  • A new test measuring college level reading, mathematics, writing and critical thinking has been developed by the Educational Testing Service and will begin to be marketed in January 2006. This test is designed for colleges to assess their general education outcomes, so the results may be used to improve the quality of instruction and learning.
  • The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education developed a new program of testing student learning in five states, which has provided highly promising results and which suggests expansion of such efforts would be clearly feasible.

An evaluation of these new testing regimes provides evidence of a significant advancement in measuring student learning -- especially in measuring the attainment of skills most needed in the future. 
Furthermore, new educational delivery models are being created, such as the Western Governors University, which uses a variety of built-in assessment techniques to determine the achievement of certain skills being taught, rather than hours-in-a-seat. These new models are valid alternatives to the older models of teaching and learning and may well prove to be superior for some teaching and learning objectives in terms of cost effectiveness.


Institutional Leadership

There are constructive examples of leadership in higher education in addressing the issues of accountability and student learning, such as the excellent work by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The AAC&U has developed a unique and significant approach to accountability and learning assessment, discussed in two recent reports, “Our Students’ Best Work” (2004) and “Liberal Education Outcomes” (2005).

The AAC&U accountability model focuses on undergraduate liberal arts education and emphasizes learning outcomes. The primary purpose is to engage campuses in identifying the core elements of a quality liberal arts education experience and measuring students’ experience in achieving these goals -- core learning and skills that anyone with a liberal arts degree should have. AAC&U specifically does not endorse a single standardized test, but acknowledges that testing can be a useful part of the multiple measures recommended in their framework.

In this model, departments and faculty are expected to be given the primary responsibility to define and assess the outcomes of the liberal arts education experience.

Federal and State Leadership    

The federal government currently collects a great deal of information from the higher education system. It may be time to re-examine what the government collects to make sure that it’s useful and helpful to the consumers of the system.

Many states are developing relevant state systems of accountability in order to measure the performance of public higher education institutions. In its recommendations about accountability in higher education, the State Higher Education Executive Officers group has endorsed a focus on learning assessment.

Institutional Performance Measurement

What is clearly lacking is a nationwide system for comparative performance purposes, using standard formats. Private ranking systems, such as the U.S. News and World Report “Best American Colleges” publications, use a limited set of data, which is not necessarily relevant for measuring institutional performance or providing the public with information needed to make critical decisions.

The Commission, with assistance of its staff and other advisors and consultants, is attempting to develop the framework for a viable database to measure institutional performance in a consumer-friendly, flexible format.


Historically, accreditation has been the nationally mandated mechanism to improve institutional quality and assure a basic level of accountability in higher education. 

Accreditation and related issues of articulation are in need of serious reform in the view of many, especially the need for more outcomes-based approaches. Also in need of substantial improvement are the regional variability in standards, the independence of accreditation, its usefulness for consumers, and its response to new forms of delivery such as internet-based distance learning.

The Commission is reviewing the various practices of institutional and programmatic accreditation. A preliminary analysis will be presented and various possible policy recommendations will be developed.


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