Higher education assessment: the year in review

2010 saw a continuation of the active and interesting conversation across the higher education community that has been building for years with regard to measuring student learning and demonstrating worth and value in higher education.

Below are some highlights of some of the more noteworthy happenings in assessment in 2010, along with links to interesting articles.

Throughout the year, The Chronicle of Higher Ed’’s Measuring Stick blog offered expert insight and discussion of assessment trends in higher education – many of these posts are well worth a read. The entire year is available at chronicle.com/measuringstick

Inside Higher Ed covered the January 2010 annual meeting of the Association of American colleges and Universities (AACU). Their article “Assessment Disconnect” describes some continuing tension and confusion among policymakers and campus officials and the potential for a future increase in federal pressure toward accountability which would affect accrediting agencies and institutions. To sum up the conflict described in the article,

Do the multitude of individual campus efforts amount to a comprehensive effort to change practices within higher education? And is the progress — without something that ties it together nationally — likely to satisfy external pressure from politicians and others on colleges to prove that they are giving students the skills that they (and their eventual employers) want and need?

Noteworthy efforts to measure and demonstrate the value of higher education are described in “The New Muscle: 5 Quality-of-Learning Projects That Didn’t Exist 5 Years Ago“. The five projects summarized here are Lumina Foundation for Education’s Tuning USA; New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability; National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment; the Voluntary System of Accountability; and the AACU Liberal Education and America’s Promise project.

In June, a report at the national meeting of the Association for Institutional Research called into question the quality of a decade-old standardized test used by more than 400 colleges known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) whose results are scheduled to go public in 2012 – see “Scholar Raises Doubts About the Value of a Test of Student Learning“. A lengthier discussion of the CLA was published by the Chronicle of Higher Ed in September, “A Measure of Learning is Put to the Test.” The article notes that one of the test creators, Richard J. Shavelson of Stanford University, author of Measuring College Learning Responsibly: Accountability in a New Era,  has described the nature of the problem this way:

“Sometimes [nationally normed tests] are used for internal improvements, and sometimes they’re used as benchmarks for external comparisons. Those two uses don’t always sit easily together. Politicians and consumers want easily interpretable scores, while colleges need subtler and more detailed data to make internal improvements.”

Take a look at this insightful and concise summary of the various college ranking and ratings systems and the measures they use, “30 ways to rate a college“, which highlights how little of these ratings are based on outcome measures (e.g. employment) vs. input measures (student selectivity)

Finally, “The Presidents’ Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability”, 71 college presidents formally announced in fall 2010 that they would take specific steps to gather more evidence about student learning, to use that evidence to improve instruction, and to give the public more information about the quality of learning on their campuses. This public vow garnered a great deal of publicity (see this Inside Higher Ed article or this Chronicle of Higher Ed article .

“The 71 pledges, officially announced on Friday, are essentially a dare to accreditors, parents, and the news media: Come visit in two years, and if we haven’t done these things, you can zing us.”

Commentary and analysis of this announcement that makes for interesting reading is available in “The Measuring Stick” in an extensive series of reactions (in 3 parts) from former university presidents, policy experts, and faculty.