Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Who Knows?, by Erik Gilbert (Associate Dean, Arkansas State):
Has anyone looked into whether assessing student-learning outcomes over many years has made American colleges, or students, better in some way? Has anyone tried to compare institutions with different approaches to assessment? I am a historian so I am not familiar with the education research, but as best I can tell from a literature search and from asking people in the field the answer is "no."
To be fair, there is nothing directly comparable to mortality rates in higher education. Figuring out what makes one university better than another one or better than it was 10 years ago is tricky. But given the amount of time, effort, and money that goes into assessment, it would be helpful to have a track record of its efficacy.
Does assessment cause actual harm? Probably not in the way unnecessary medical treatment does, but there are opportunity costs associated with it. And most troubling of all is that the fundamental premise of assessment is that the problems we need to test for and try to fix are found in the classroom and the curriculum. So while we are agonizing about whether we need to change how we present the unit on cyclohexane because 45 percent of the students did not meet the learning outcome, budgets are being cut, students are working full-time jobs, and debt loads are growing.
People who work in assessment complain that faculty treat it as merely a compliance issue; that we just tick the boxes and don’t use the data to improve student learning. No doubt this it true. Advocates may be able to point to modest improvements in student learning in specific programs or courses with evidence generated by assessment instruments, but this is worryingly similar to surgeons patting themselves on the back for taking out tumors without checking to see if their interventions are affecting mortality rates.
If advocates could point to evidence that good assessment has led to improvements that are external to the process itself — like changes in a college’s reputation, ranking, or employment prospects for its students — I suspect faculty would give it more support.
Assessment is one of those things that we keep telling ourselves will pay off if we could just get it right, but we never seem to get there. It’s time for us to demand that the accreditors who are driving assessment provide evidence that it offers benefits commensurate with the expense that goes into it. We should no longer accept on faith or intuition that learning-outcomes assessment has positive and consequential effects on our institutions — or students.