Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment & Accreditation


Fixing assessment in American higher education

Posted on May 7, 2016 at 9:00 AM

In my April 25 blog post, “Are our assessment processes broken?” I listed five key problems with assessment in the United States. Can we fix them? Yes, we can, primarily because today we have a number of organizations and entities that can tackle them, including (in no particular order):


Here are five steps that I think will dramatically improve the quality and effectiveness of student learning assessment in the United States.


1. Develop a common vocabulary. So much time is wasted debating the difference between a learning outcome and a learning objective, for example. The assessment movement is now mature enough that we can develop a common baseline glossary of those terms that continue to be muddy or confusing.


2. Define acceptable, good, and best assessment practices. Yes, many accreditors provide professional development for their membership and reviewers on assessment, but trainers often focus on best practices rather than minimally acceptable practices. This leads to reviewers unnecessarily “dinging” institutions on relatively minor points (say, learning outcomes don’t start with action words) while missing the forest of, say, piles of assessment evidence that aren’t being used meaningfully.


Specifically, we need to practice what we preach with one or more rubrics that list the essential elements of assessment and define best, good, acceptable, and unacceptable performance levels for each criteria. Fortunately, we have some good models to work off of: NILOA’s Excellence in Assessment designation criteria, CHEA’s awards for Effective Institutional Practice in Student Learning Outcomes, recognition criteria developed by the (now defunct) New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, and rubrics developed by some accreditors. Then we need to educate institutions and accreditation reviewers on how to use the rubric(s).


3. Focus less on student learning assessment (and its cousins, student achievement, student success, and completion) and more on teaching and learning. I would love to see Lumina focus on excellent teaching (including engagement) as a primary strategy to achieve its completion agenda—getting more faculty to adopt research-informed pedagogies that help students learn and succeed. I’d also like to see accreditors include the use of research- and evidence-informed teaching practices in their definitions of educational excellence.


4. Communicate clearly and succinctly with various audiences what our students are learning and what we're doing to improve learning. I haven't yet found any institution that I think is doing this really well. Capella is the only one I’ve seen that impresses me, and even Capella only presents results, not what they're doing to improve learning. I'm intrigued by the concept of infographics and wish I'd studied graphic design! A partnership with some graphic designers (student interns or class project?) might help us come up with some effective ways to tell our complicated stories.


5. Focus public attention on student learning as an essential part of student success. As Richard DeMillo recently pointed out, we need to find meaningful alternatives to US News rankings that focus on what’s truly important—namely, student learning and success. The problem has always been that student learning and success are so complex that they can’t be summarized into a brief set of metrics.

But the U.S. Department of Education has opened an intriguing possibility. At the very end of his April 22 letter to accreditors, Undersecretary Ted Mitchell noted that “Accreditors may…develop tiers of recognition, with some institutions or programs denoted as achieving the standards at higher or lower levels than others.” Accreditors thus now have an opportunity to commend publicly those institutions that achieve certain standards at a (clearly defined) “best practice” level. Many standards would not be of high interest to most members of the public, and input-based standards (resources) would only continue to recognize the wealthiest institutions. But commendations for best practices in things like research- and evidence-informed teaching methods and student development programs, serving the public good, and meeting employer needs with well-prepared graduates (documented through assessment evidence and rigorous standards) could turn this around and focus everyone on what’s most important: making sure America’s college students get great educations.

Categories: State of assessment

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Reply ★ Owner
12:42 PM on May 26, 2016 
Boy, you nailed it, Debbie! We really don't value great teaching at the college level, and that's reflected in our hiring, evaluation, and support practices.
Reply ★ Owner
12:42 PM on May 26, 2016 
LOL, Catherine! I have the same problem telling people outside higher ed what I do for a living. I usually say I teach faculty how to grade more fairly. When I do international work, I tell the border agent I'm a consultant on college accreditation. It seems everyone has a vague idea of what college accreditation is, so they let me pass.
Reply Catherine Wehlburg
5:17 PM on May 9, 2016 
Thanks, Linda, for providing us a framework for thinking about this. I'm especially intrigued by the idea of creating a "common vocabulary." I think that is essential -- but I also think it means that we will no longer use words that are already defined in many different ways -- like "assessment" or "evaluation." This is a challenge to think of the ways that we want to state what we do and why without confusing the audience(s).

I know that when I tell people outside of higher ed that I'm int he field of assessment, I get many different responses. Some think that i"m a a diagnostician in the areas of learning differences, some think that I create standardized tests, and most don't have a clue as to what that means.
Reply Debbie Kell
11:52 AM on May 9, 2016 
I am intrigued by your recommendation to focus less on student learning outcomes and more on teaching and learning... excellent teaching as a strategy. I can see opportunity and challenges. College faculty are not required to have degrees in teaching or learning. College faculty are seen as "content experts." So many institutions of higher education are unionized, so that intervention efforts can be hindered. Some faculty members teach the way they were taught, which is lecturing behind a podium, accompanied by the mantra that "there is just so much to cover." Some higher education institutions value research over teaching excellence. If ground could be shifted to include a focus on excellent teaching practices in higher education, I can imagine significant impact.