Inside Higher Ed: Harsh Take on Assessment… From Assessment Pros

An Inside Higher Ed article published on April 17, 2019 highlights a plenary discussion entitled, "Provocative Questions and Courageous Answers about Teaching, Learning, and Assessment - Is Higher Education Accomplishing what it Said it Would?" that took place at WSCUC's 2019 Academic Resource Conference. 

WSCUC president Jamienne S. Studley said, "We chose the theme Provocative Questions, Courageous Answers to underscore that WSCUC is committed to the same self-reflection and continuous improvement we expect of our institutions. When done well, assessment is a powerful tool that supports student success. Assessment has certainly evolved from its earliest days, and it’s our responsibility as an accreditor to encourage its wise application in the context of effective oversight and improvement focused on equity and important outcomes for all students.”

It was a genuine pleasure to host this important conversation at the 2019 ARC. So many forward-looking and forward-thinking comments were made that accomplished what we were hoping for – a group of distinguished and engaged colleagues focusing on student-centered ways to understand and improve the teaching and learning enterprise. 

The tension between accountability and improvement in accreditation and assessment is well documented. And there are many complex facets to this tension that deserve nuanced and well-informed points of view – there are no black and white answers or simple formulas for right and wrong. We were glad to foreground diverse ideas from dedicated educators with different opinions that ultimately reflected the most important values of the academy – open debate, peer review, and fidelity to mission.

Read an excerpt of the Inside Higher Ed article below and see the full piece here

The session took place at the Academic Resource Conference, the annual gathering of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, which accredits institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. The panel's title built off the conference's theme of "provocative questions and courageous answers," and asked, in regard to teaching, learning and assessment, "is higher education accomplishing what it said it would?"

Not surprisingly, given such a broadly framed question, the conversation that unfolded was wide ranging and, at times, scattershot. But at its core, the discussion revolved largely around whether the way most colleges currently have gone about trying to judge whether their students are learning (by defining student learning outcomes and finding some way to gauge whether they have achieved those goals) helps institutions (and helps higher education collectively) prove they are doing a good job.

The answers were pretty uniformly no, despite all the activity colleges have engaged in during the last decade.

"There's a paradox that puzzles me and should puzzle all of us," said John Etchemendy, former provost at Stanford University, who is also a commissioner of the Western accrediting commission and a member of the federal panel that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation. The evidence is unequivocal, he said, that "the answer to the question on the screen -- is higher education accomplishing what it said it would? -- is absolutely yes," based on how much more college-goers earn over their lifetimes than Americans without a degree, among other indicators.

But "whenever we try to directly measure what students have learned, what they have gotten out of their education," Etchemendy continued, "the effect is tiny, if any. We can see the overall effects, but we cannot show directly what it is, how it is that we’re changing the kids."

Read the full article.