Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Why set targets for assessment results?

Posted on February 28, 2016 at 7:30 AM

In a recent ASSESS listserv, Jocelyn Shadforth asked for opinions on the value of setting targets for collective performance. She sees the value of clearly defining what constitutes acceptable performance and reporting the percentage of students who achieve that performance level. But she wondered about the merit of setting a target for what that proportion should be.


I think Jocelyn’s priorities are right. As I suggested in my October 16, 2015, blog on two simple steps to better assessment, we need rubrics whose performance levels clearly define acceptable and unacceptable performance, not using subjective terms such as “Good” or “Fair.” If all our rubrics were designed this way, we’d move light years ahead in terms of generating truly useful, actionable assessment results.


But, as I suggested in my June 6, 2015, blog on overcoming barriers to using assessment results, I do think we need a clear sense of what results are satisfactory and what results aren’t. Let’s say 75% of your students meet your standard for acceptable performance. Do you have a problem or not? Without a target, if less than 100% of students meet the standard, one could conclude there’s always room for improvement. And if every student meets the standard, one could conclude that the standard was too low. Either way, you have more work ahead of you—a demoralizing prospect!


I think faculty deserve to set a target that will let them say, at least sometimes, “We’re not perfect, but we’ve done our job, and we’ve done it pretty darned well, and all we need to do from this point forward is stay the course.” And I'd like them to celebrate that decision with a pizza party!


As I suggested in my March 23, 2015, blog on setting meaningful benchmarks or standards, the target is going to vary depending on what you’re assessing. I’ve often said that I want my taxes done by an accountant who does them correctly 100% of the time. And I want to be confident that if I hire an accountant who graduated from your college, he or she can indeed do them correctly, not be one of the 30% or 25% or 20% who doesn't always do them correctly. But if one of your gen ed goals is to develop students’ creative thinking skills, you might be satisfied if half or three-quarters of your students achieve your target.


What I suggested in my March 23 blog is that you first define the performance level that would embarrass you if a student passed your course, or completed your gen ed requirement, or graduated with that competency level. For example, you would be embarrassed by a college graduate who can’t put together a coherent paragraph. You really should have a target that close to 100% of students (at least those who pass) surpass that level…but maybe not exactly 100%, since there will always be the occasional student who misunderstands the assignment, is sick while completing the assignment, etc.


And then I’ve never met a faculty member who would be satisfied if every student performed at a minimally adequate level…and none did any better. So it may be worthwhile to set a second target for the proportion of students for whom we’d like to see exemplary work.


One last key from my March 23 blog to setting meaningful targets: don’t pull targets out of a hat, but use data to inform your thinking. Maybe hold off on setting targets until you use your rubric once and see what the results are. Or, if you’re using a published instrument like NSSE, look at the national averages for your peers and decide if you want to be, say, above the average of your peers on certain criteria.


Bottom line: Yes, I think targets are an extremely important part of meaningful assessment, and they can actually save assessment work in the long run, but only if they’re established thoughtfully.

Categories: Standards & targets