Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Assessment: The Guiding Principles of Institutions That Have Established a Culture of Assessment Can Be Described as Internally Driven

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Assessment: The Guiding Principles of Institutions That Have Established a Culture of Assessment Can Be Described as Internally Driven

Article excerpt

"Many higher education institutions have managed only small and incremental steps on their journeys toward sustainability, confronted by both complexity and embedded resistance to change." (Tilbury and Wortman 2008, p. 5)


As the assessment movement gains momentum, colleges, universities, and academic departments continue to seek help with the rudiments of the process and with ways to evaluate their specific programs (U.S. Department of Education 1993). In the United States, over 94 percent of higher education institutions have assessment activities underway (Palomba and Banta 1999). Many of these institutions struggle in "isolation with state accountability mandates, accrediting agency requirements, and internal concerns with declining student performance and the efficacy of the curriculum" (U.S. Department of Education 1993, [paragraph] 3). In response to this and the growing sophistication of assessment in general, the higher education community is now looking for guidance on models and best practices. The American Association for Higher Education and other resources offer a plethora of "how to" information that specifies the stakeholders, assessment rubrics, and critical components needed to establish an assessment process. However, there is limited information on how to establish a culture of assessment that will sustain itself beyond accreditation to continually assess how much students learn and to maintain a quality improvement approach across programs, schools, and institutions.

Culture of Assessment

A culture of assessment is defined as "an organizational environment in which decisions are based on facts, research, and analysis, and where services are planned and delivered in ways that maximize positive outcomes and impacts for customers and stakeholders" (Lakos and Phipps 2004, p. 352). A culture of assessment can guide meaningful change on a continual basis (Lakos and Phipps 2004; Smart and St. John 1996). Creating this culture requires continuous learning, strategic decision making, prioritization of the allocation of scarce resources, and organizational and individual accountability (Lakos and Phipps 2004). An institution with a culture of assessment agrees on what is organizationally meaningful and what practices are required to fulfill its goals (Schein 1999).

As Cameron and Quinn (1999) note, the most commonly shared ingredient of successful organizations is their ability to pay attention to culture. Correspondingly, the success of an assessment system depends on using established principles grounded in organizational culture to govern its practices. Creating an effective assessment system at the school, college, or institutional level requires the articulation of a shared conceptual understanding, a common definition of assessment, and the clear expression of assessment expectations and the use of results (Bresciani 2005). This ensures that the environment is ready to establish an assessment culture that supports and sustains change (Hill 2005). The study presented in this article examines how institutions have established a culture of assessment and how the interplay among organizational practices affects that culture. Since the likelihood of overall institutional agreement and buy-in is rare, particularly initially, the article also discusses the challenges that institutions face when creating a culture of assessment. In addition, the article describes strategies that can be used to sustain a culture of assessment once it has been created, as well as how leadership can support this effort in terms of policy design and implementation.

Theoretical Framework

The assessment culture matrix, published by the Higher Learning Commission/NCA (2003), identifies three stages in developing an assessment culture: beginning, progress, and maturation. The matrix describes each stage of development in relation to seven factors that are pertinent to assessment systems across programs, colleges, and institutions: collective and shared values, mission, faculty, administration and board, students, resources, and structures. …

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