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The Sequence of Assessment Priorities

Making choices about how to assess what students have learned
University Business, Nov 2011

Everyone in higher education at last understands that important components of “the public”—state and federal officials, nongovernmental accrediting bodies, and prospective students and their parents—expect a college to cite compelling evidence that students learn a great deal at that institution. Officials who are most eager to make evidence available believe students will enroll only in colleges demonstrating that their graduates experience impressive intellectual growth over four years. Colleges that concur often expect the government and accreditors to force low-performing institutions to improve or shut down and to reward colleges that do exceptionally well.

However, as any dean of admissions will attest, faith in an efficient market goes only so far. Prospective students are not rational consumers, and political considerations often prevent regulators from both barring shoddy practices and rewarding excellent institutional performance.

Calls for greater accountability are not new. They first emerged nearly 30 years ago and have grown in volume through Democratic and Republican administrations and through periods of both growth and decline in the number of high school graduates. One cannot easily blame today’s critiques of higher education on circumstances that are sudden or emerging from ideological or economic factors that are easily shrugged off as cyclical or beyond colleges’ control.

Political considerations often prevent regulators from barring shoddy practices.

Still, most colleges and universities have responded in good faith. To increase enrollments to meet the national priority for more college graduates with high-quality degrees, colleges have strengthened support services and increased financial aid for students from historically underserved segments of the population. At most private colleges and universities, the result has been a major commitment to first-generation and low-income students. Fully one-third of CIC’s members can take pride in enrollments that include 30 percent or more first-generation students. The rates of enrollment and graduation of low-income students are higher, on average, at small and mid-sized private colleges and universities than at large public universities.

Dampened Enthusiasm

The emphasis on accountability in measuring students’ “learning outcomes” has been natural for private colleges to embrace because the widely used measures of graduation rates and cognitive growth indicate that these colleges do better than public four-year colleges—and that is true when comparing all students with similar records of achievement at the time of high school graduation. Enthusiasm for greater accountability has been dampened, however, by the lack of follow-through by state and federal agencies. If private colleges do a better job and have the evidence to support those claims, why haven’t state and federal policies been reshaped to acknowledge the cost-effective role of our sector in helping state governments provide educational opportunities for state residents and in helping the federal government fulfill national priorities?

The answer to these questions has many parts. Students do, for better or worse, look at factors other than statistics on intellectual growth when selecting a college. Also, states regard public universities as providers of additional benefits to the state beyond educational opportunities, including employment.

Less recognized as part of the answer is a third factor—the recent emergence of “assessment fatigue.” Even the colleges that are most eager to engage the many worthy initiatives in assessment feel increasingly overwhelmed by too much of a good thing. No college can participate in all the initiatives underway—including regional accreditors, foundation-supported projects, and campus efforts. When deciding how to assess what students have learned, choices need to be made by each campus.

Many Options

For more than a decade, assessment initiatives have been plentiful, with the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) most widely used. A CIC consortium of as many as 57 institutions met annually from 2004 through 2011, thanks to support from the Teagle Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York, to share and discuss results with an eye to identifying good practices that could improve teaching and learning effectiveness. A report the CIC/CLA Consortium’s progress was prepared in 2009, and an update was published this month (

Throughout the past decade, certain factors attracted closer scrutiny. The goal of educating and graduating low-income and first-generation students came into high relief after President Obama articulated his goals for increasing the number of college graduates, and his objectives were echoed by several major foundations.

CIC’s large grants from the Walmart Foundation put the focus on the role of non-elite, smaller private colleges in enrolling and graduating first-generation students. The Carnegie Corporation of New York subsequently urged CIC to focus on urban institutions’ efforts to graduate low-income and first-generation students through an “Urban Pathways” project that has allowed 29 colleges and universities to learn from one another how best to assess student learning and use the results, particularly from the CLA, to improve the education they offer.

Two additional dimensions of the larger objective now loom large for independent institutions. A new Teagle Foundation initiative to promote better use of evidence to improve teaching and learning will offer a workshop for 40 colleges that are implementing program improvement projects. This “Engaging Evidence” project also includes a special seminar on the president’s role in leading curricular and pedagogical change, which will be part of the 2012 CIC Presidents Institute.

Moreover, the Lumina Foundation for Education recently asked CIC to be one of three groups of colleges and universities to test the applicability of the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). The other two test groups are the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Two dozen institutions will be selected for the project among the many currently engaged in projects that could be enhanced by the DQP—such as a review of degree requirements, general education reform, or aligning educational outcomes across academic departments—to establish a shared view of which cognitive skills and knowledge a bachelor’s degree ought to represent—across fields, institution types, and state and national boundaries.

Demands for outcomes assessment by accreditors are impossible to ignore.

CIC leadership had been skeptical of an earlier version of the Degree Qualifications Profile; it too closely resembled the European Union’s Bologna Process. That the Lumina Foundation asked CIC to help test the DQP is a testament to the foundation’s candor in seeking understanding of the DQP’s applicability to independent colleges, institutions typically emphatic in their opposition to anything that could erode institutional autonomy.

This sequence of emphases tracks the evolution that many colleges and universities have followed on these issues. At the same time, “assessment fatigue” is a real danger. Demands for outcomes assessment by accreditors are impossible to ignore, while others may offer more targeted help in advancing reforms within the institution. For smaller, private colleges especially, any assessment regime must be affordable and sustainable, relying on existing levels of staff and financial resources. Sometimes—to reverse a truism of educational quality—“excellent” can be the enemy of “good.” The goal is a higher-quality education for our students, not higher-quality assessment itself.