As assessment has become ever-more-prominent in education and the non-profit world -- a trend that has been building for the past 25 years, according to my reading -- two distinct sets of reasons for assessing have been given. Often they live side-by-side in uneasy alliance. But they are very different, and that difference could make a BIG difference for faculty lives.
Assessment Theory #1 -- ACCOUNTABILITY
The problem assessment is supposed to solve:
Lots of money goes into education and non-profits, and it is hard to tell if it is well-spent or wasted.
In this context, assessment is intended to provide metrics that enable valid comparison of one possible use of funds with other possible uses. In the world of higher education, this leads to the call for standardized exams of basic skills -- usually writing and critical thinking -- to be given to all students (or a representative sample of all students), across all schools. The scores on these standardized tests would allow easy and clear comparisons of one institution with another. Indeed, there are several exams that are competing to fulfill this dream, such as the CLA (or for community colleges, CCLA) or the ACT CAPP. Lots of colleges and universities have responded to the call for assessment using this theory of assessment by mandating the use of one of these tests.... After the admistration gets the results, they then inform faculty of how well (or badly) they are doing. Poor results lead to lots of administration pressure on under-performing faculty.
Assessment Theory #2 -- CONTINUAL IMPROVEMENT
The problem assessment is supposed to solve:
Our world is in dire need of the skills and competencies characteristic of educated people -- primarily communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills -- and this mission is so important, we must devise ways to identify and quickly roll-out best practices.
At PCC, we have been firmly within the fold of Assessment Theory #2. It is, after all, what our accreditors have asked of us -- evidence that assessment of student learning is being used to improve both teaching and learning. It is also the process that is most respectful of faculty, so it is not suprising that a faculty Council would come up with this sort of a recommendation. Additionally, it is the only approach that could lead to results that would actually be useful to instructor practice.
Notice, however, that Theory #2 leads to ever more customized and distinct assessments, while Theory #1 leads to ever more generalized and standardized assessments. These two theories lead to incompatible pictures of what GOOD ASSESSMENT looks like. The more locally useful a particular assessment is to a given SAC, the less useful it will be to compare one college to another....
I mention all this because one of my heroines in the Assessment World is Trudy W. Banta, editor of Assessment Update: Progress, Trends, and Practices in Higher Education. In the most recent edition (Sept-Oct 2011) she has written a piece warning that "... the promise of assessment for improvement might be diminished by increased focus on assessment for accountability."
I offer two thoughts in this context:
(1) We, here at PCC, are lucky to have both an administration AND an accrediting agency operating from Assessment Theory #2. This is the approach that fully respects faculty as THE key players in driving program improvement. Although assessment takes up hours and energy, when done by faculty (and done well) it leads to results that make a difference in student lives -- it leads to continual program improvement and better learning outcomes.
(2) While we here at PCC are getting better and more proficent at assessing our programs and disciplines -- witness the amazing variety and innovation of assessment approaches across our SACs, with ever-better strategies and instruments -- it simply may not be enough to stave off the rush to standardization. At this point, there is still a national push for assessments that fit the picture from Theory #1. Assessing to compare one institution with another is very, very, very different from assessing to be able to do our important job ever better. While both are part of the rise of assessment, they lead to very,very,very different pictures of what good assessment looks like. A one-size-fits-all test looks ridiculous on one model, and the only thing that will work on the other....
Wait. I really meant:
very, very, very, very different.....
I'll keep an eye out and let you know what I see on the standardization horizon. Until then, we will continue with our PCC plan of asking for a splendid locally-controlled profusion of SAC-specific assessment!!