Who Really Pays for Assessment?

A professor describes what accountability looks like on campus, and suggests that administrators or lawmakers be required -- when adopting requirements -- to estimate the hours needed.

March 2, 2009

Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You gotta have somethin'
If you wanna be with me.
--Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher

Many essays in these pages have debated the pros and cons of assessment, but I have not yet seen a discussion about what from my perspective is a crucial question for anyone involved in the assessment process: Who pays?

For the purpose of this essay I want bracket the question of the value of assessment. In fact I want to imagine, as proponents of assessment claim, that the kinds of assessment now being required or proposed are distinct from the kinds of assessment academic departments have traditionally performed, and that these new kinds of assessment improve instruction.

But if these assessments add value, who creates that value? There is no such thing as a free lunch. And it is faculty who are very often being asked to cook up this assessment meal. The new work is not trivial. Of course, faculty members carry out assessment as part of their regular employment. This ordinary assessment includes evaluating student assignments, both individually and at the end of a course, and broader evaluation of the direction and effectiveness of academic programs.

Recent calls for assessment add new layers to this traditional work of the faculty. Indeed, there may be more than one externally imposed, large-scale assessment requirement. State education boards may have their version of assessment requirements, and regional accrediting agencies another. Because these requirements do not necessarily coordinate either with one another or with the kinds of assessment in which faculty have traditionally been engaged, members of the faculty can find themselves involved in multiple assessment projects at once, each with its own distinct requirements. There are additional labor costs involved in learning the frequently complex number of assessment cycles and report formats required, even before one does the actual work of a new assessment.

All told, I would estimate that I spent about 50 total working hours last year on additional required assessments: these hours include tasks such as learning about multiple assessment formats and assessment software, meeting with assessment staff to discuss requirements, collecting information, drafting multiple reports and coordinating sections of these reports with colleagues. This 50 hours of time was just mine. To estimate the total cost to my department, you would need to multiply that number by 4 (the number of faculty members for whom this assessment was a principal duty), and then a fraction of that number -- say an average of 8 -- by another 15 faculty who helped in various ways with the assessment. The total hours come to 320. That's a lot of work, and hence a lot of work not being done somewhere else. Only a fraction of that work could be folded into the traditional forms of assessment done by faculty.

At my institution, moreover, there is little administrative support for these new assessment requirements. Our small assessment office works valiantly to keep up with its own ever-increasing workload, but because of the strains on that office there is little the staff can do for departments other than communicate information about assessment requirements and leave departments to figure out how to meet them.

Some proponents of assessment argue that the work should be understood as part of a faculty member's job description. As noted above, I agree that assessment of students and programs is part of a tenure-line faculty member's responsibility -- of teaching and service, to be exact. (I strenuously disagree, however, that already underpaid part-time faculty should be required to engage in these additional forms of assessments, as they sometimes are.) But you can't have your cake and eat it. If there is something new, and hence value-added, in the current calls for assessment, beyond the forms of assessment that members of the faculty have traditionally performed, then there must also be new work involved -- work that had not previously been part of the responsibilities of tenure-line faculty.

There are a few ways to understand how this new work gets added on. First, one could justify this addition by claiming that tenure-line faculty have been under employed. Those who believe that to be the case should state it explicitly, and provide good evidence to back up their claim.

Second, one could grant, as I believe is the case, that faculty already have full loads comprised of teaching, research and service. In that case, institutions could take seriously the idea of new assessment requirements by shifting faculty work obligations. What percentage of the faculty member's job should be devoted to new assessment requirements? Perhaps, for example, universities should lower research expectations in order to allow faculty time to carry out new layers of assessment, or perhaps members of the faculty should receive some form of course release.

Because universities are, very reasonably, unwilling to cut back on any of the current obligations of their tenure-line faculty, I suspect they turn (as at my institution) to the tempting strategy of piggy-backing. In this strategy it is hoped that since members of the faculty have always assessed instruction, they can just add the new assessment requirements to the mix. In my experience, however, this strategy is less piggy-backing than camel's back-breaking. Especially troubling is that the faculty charged with new forms of assessment are often those who were already most involved with forms of assessment traditional to the department or college.

For example, our undergraduate committee was delayed by a semester in carrying out planned improvements to the undergraduate program because our time was spent assessing and reporting according to the requirements of a new state-mandated assessment. At the minimum, advocates of new assessment requirements must be willing to state that they are comfortable asking faculty that have long-standing modes of self-assessment to give up (rather than double-up) these forms of self-assessment, in order to create time to comply with the new requirements.

There is one more approach, the worst of all. That's just not to care. This approach says (more or less tacitly) "if the faculty have more work to do, so what? Things are tough all over." This approach is not only unfair, but also counterproductive. The work gets done, but it gets done poorly. If one considers declines in service in businesses that are trying to do more with less (for example, the airlines) it is easy to see how disastrous an approach this is. Overburdening faculty, in fact, most adversely impacts the very constituency that assessment is supposed to help: the students.

So here is my proposal. From now on, all plans for assessment should come with plans for who is going to do the labor, where the labor time is going to come from, and, if need be, who will pay for it. This side of any assessment plan should be as detailed as the requirements for assessing itself, including an estimate of the added number of hours required for the assessment, as the IRS estimates the time to do our taxes. I would add that if there are readers who think I must be overestimating the amount of time my department spent on additional assessment requirements, at least I am providing an estimate (I wish, in this case, I had treated my hours as billable!). It would be helpful to see from assessment proponents how much time -- additional to the ordinary teaching and service responsibilities of faculty -- they believe the assessments should take, and, again, where that time should come from.

I have to hope that those who believe the most in the value of new assessment requirements would be the most enthusiastic about accounting for the monetary or staffing resources required to carry them out. After all, to the principles that there's no such thing as a free lunch, and that you can't have your cake and eat it, we may add that you get what you pay for. If we're going to take new assessment requirements seriously, let's not nickel and dime them. And if we're not going to nickel and dime them, then we need serious and explicit discussions about who pays.


Unfunded Mandate is the pseudonym of a member of the faculty at a large state university.


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