Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Fixing assessment in American higher education

Posted on May 7, 2016 at 9:00 AM

In my April 25 blog post, “Are our assessment processes broken?” I listed five key problems with assessment in the United States. Can we fix them? Yes, we can, primarily because today we have a number of organizations and entities that can tackle them, including (in no particular order):


Here are five steps that I think will dramatically improve the quality and effectiveness of student learning assessment in the United States.


1. Develop a common vocabulary. So much time is wasted debating the difference between a learning outcome and a learning objective, for example. The assessment movement is now mature enough that we can develop a common baseline glossary of those terms that continue to be muddy or confusing.


2. Define acceptable, good, and best assessment practices. Yes, many accreditors provide professional development for their membership and reviewers on assessment, but trainers often focus on best practices rather than minimally acceptable practices. This leads to reviewers unnecessarily “dinging” institutions on relatively minor points (say, learning outcomes don’t start with action words) while missing the forest of, say, piles of assessment evidence that aren’t being used meaningfully.


Specifically, we need to practice what we preach with one or more rubrics that list the essential elements of assessment and define best, good, acceptable, and unacceptable performance levels for each criteria. Fortunately, we have some good models to work off of: NILOA’s Excellence in Assessment designation criteria, CHEA’s awards for Effective Institutional Practice in Student Learning Outcomes, recognition criteria developed by the (now defunct) New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, and rubrics developed by some accreditors. Then we need to educate institutions and accreditation reviewers on how to use the rubric(s).


3. Focus less on student learning assessment (and its cousins, student achievement, student success, and completion) and more on teaching and learning. I would love to see Lumina focus on excellent teaching (including engagement) as a primary strategy to achieve its completion agenda—getting more faculty to adopt research-informed pedagogies that help students learn and succeed. I’d also like to see accreditors include the use of research- and evidence-informed teaching practices in their definitions of educational excellence.


4. Communicate clearly and succinctly with various audiences what our students are learning and what we're doing to improve learning. I haven't yet found any institution that I think is doing this really well. Capella is the only one I’ve seen that impresses me, and even Capella only presents results, not what they're doing to improve learning. I'm intrigued by the concept of infographics and wish I'd studied graphic design! A partnership with some graphic designers (student interns or class project?) might help us come up with some effective ways to tell our complicated stories.


5. Focus public attention on student learning as an essential part of student success. As Richard DeMillo recently pointed out, we need to find meaningful alternatives to US News rankings that focus on what’s truly important—namely, student learning and success. The problem has always been that student learning and success are so complex that they can’t be summarized into a brief set of metrics.

But the U.S. Department of Education has opened an intriguing possibility. At the very end of his April 22 letter to accreditors, Undersecretary Ted Mitchell noted that “Accreditors may…develop tiers of recognition, with some institutions or programs denoted as achieving the standards at higher or lower levels than others.” Accreditors thus now have an opportunity to commend publicly those institutions that achieve certain standards at a (clearly defined) “best practice” level. Many standards would not be of high interest to most members of the public, and input-based standards (resources) would only continue to recognize the wealthiest institutions. But commendations for best practices in things like research- and evidence-informed teaching methods and student development programs, serving the public good, and meeting employer needs with well-prepared graduates (documented through assessment evidence and rigorous standards) could turn this around and focus everyone on what’s most important: making sure America’s college students get great educations.

Categories: State of assessment