Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Assessing for Excellence by Alexander Astin

by Shirlee

An institution's assessment practices are a reflection of its values.

I came across this statement -- offered as "a basic premise of this work" -- in the opening pages of the book Assessment for Excellence, by Alexander Astin. There is lots and lots and lots (and lots) of stuff written about assessment these days, so it takes something catchy to keep me reading. I am a values-driven sort of gal, so the idea that we can tell what someone cares about in education, by looking at how they do assessment -- well, it kept me reading.

Astin says that the word "assessment" covers two very different activities.

The first is basically a kind of measuring. He says most faculty measure things as a form of record keeping -- because they are required to do so as part of their job. We give tests, and record the scores, and are thereby able to calculate grades and turn them in..... This is assessing as measuring.

The second assessing activity requires using the measurements for individual and institutional improvement. In this activity, we ask what to make of what we measured. What does it mean? This is inherently evaluative, and requires a clear-eyed understanding of basic educational purposes and motives.

Many SACs have gathered their items to measure, at this point in the annual assessment process. Some have already done their measuring. If assessing were just measuring, we would record the numbers (as the good record-keepers we are), and move on to something else. But we are now asked to turn to the deeper, more important aspect of assessment -- asking what the measurements mean, as we keep a focused eye on the point of all our work: student learning.

Astin also contrasts three different ways of understanding "excellence in education."

(i) He says some people think the best colleges are the most resource-rich. They have beautiful campuses, hefty endowments, big sports stadiums and incredible labs... and with these resources, they attract the students with the highest scores, and then charge them a hefty price.

(ii) He says the second notion of "excellence" leads to roughly the same listing of "best to worst" -- but based on the idea of "reputation." The schools that attract the most talent (and can thereby turn away the most talent) are the best by a reputational standard.

(iii) But the best way to measure "excellence" in education (according to Astin) is neither via resources nor reputation. He says what matters is "the development of talent." Those institutions that lead to the most actualization of high potential are the best.

Here at PCC, we are asking faculty to develop their skills not just in measuring and record-keeping, but in evaluating what they have measured. What do our scores say about how we are doing by our students? How can we use these results to serve our students even better?

In this, faculty will need to develop more meaningful talents than those of keeping good records. We must, in collaboration, look deeply at our measurements as searchers-after-the-meaning. The meaning that matters is the meaning that helps us excel... Even as we develop new talents (beyond record keeping!) in ourselves, we will be finding ways to better develop the talents of our students.

How we do assessment says who we are and what we care about, says Astin. Like him, I care about people becoming their very best selves... And, following his lead, I like what our assessment process at PCC says about who we are.

Who are we?

We are the ones working hard to develop the talents most needed for our troubled and complex world, so that the life of those who come after us will be better for us having been here... We are working hard to make sure we do this job, and we do it well. We are assessing for excellence. Just like Astin says we should....

Thank you for all you do....

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