Beyond Crude Measurement & Consumerism

By Katz, Stanley N. | Academe, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond Crude Measurement & Consumerism


Katz, Stanley N., Academe


We ought to be up to the task of figuring out what it is that our students know by the end of four years at college that they did not know at the beginning.

Why should faculty members support efforts on their campuses to assess student learning outcomes? A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent years by a small number of professors and a much larger number of educational administrators arguing for assessment and pleading for greater faculty support of institutional assessment efforts. It is now a truism that faculty reluctance is the single biggest impediment to the adoption of systematic institutional efforts to measure learning outcomes. The next logical truism is that if we are to create an assessment culture in higher education, we must convince the faculty to support systemic assessment across the four years of college. Are these truisms true?

I first want to acknowledge the potential perils to faculty acceptance of outcome assessments. Paranoids do have real enemies, after all. Since the appointment of U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in the most recent Bush administration, it has been clear that a number of those who support outcome assessment (like Spellings herself and Charles Miller, chair of Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education) do so in the name of educational consumerism-they want assessment so that students and their parents can comparison shop. The metaphor Spellings repeatedly used was that Americans had much more information on buying used cars than they had in choosing educational institutions and that it was time they got a chance to "kick the tires." This sort of crude consumerism (cost was the main criterion) is not in itself a threat to the autonomy of individual colleges or their faculty. Indeed, such an approach might have done a more adequate job than U.S. News and World Report and other media currently do. Carried out poorly, however, it could (and probably would) provide inaccurate and misleading information.

More significant for most of us in academia, however, has been the support for outcome assessment that comes from those committed to external imposition of accountability-those with the legal and financial power to reward or punish institutions that do not meet their expectations. This includes the federal secretary of education or state education officials. The concern here is that even beyond the consumerism mentality, crude measures of educational "success" would be developed through high-stakes testing or other blunt mechanisms and that these measures would constitute the primary methods for evaluating, rewarding, and punishing faculty "performance," along the lines of the current movement to hold K-12 teachers "accountable" and to get rid of those who do not "measure up" to the prescribed standards.

Assessment Instruments

It is certainly possible to imagine that the imposition of such an assessment system could pressure faculty unions to abandon hard-won gains and reasonable teacher prerogatives in pursuit of incentives, such as those currently proffered in the Obama administration's K-12 "Race to the Top" program. The point is that accountability-based assessment, when imposed from outside the university, is understandably problematic and potentially liable to abuse.

But externally imposed assessment is the worst-case scenario. Faculty members should be capable of contemplating more benign, educationally helpful uses for sophisticated measurement of student learning outcomes. For the sake of argument, let us assume that we could agree on appropriate measures of student success and that we could measure them reasonably accurately. I do not see why either faculty members or their institutions should oppose such an approach to institutional evaluation. In fact, the widening acceptance of this idea has led recently to the development of outcome-assessment instruments such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, or "Nessie") and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). …

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