The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

FEATURE ARTICLES
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The Assessment Waltz: How Outcomes Assessment is Hurting Liberal Arts Colleges
James Pontuso - 04/09/08

A specter is haunting liberal arts institutions—the specter of assessment. All the powers of the educational establishment have entered into an unholy alliance to implement this specter: state and federal government agencies, the Department of Education, university and college administrators, and accrediting organizations.

Alright, to paraphrase the Communist Manifesto may be melodramatic, but the sobering fact is that assessment has become one of academia’s most serious problems. Whenever I meet with colleagues from other schools, the conversation soon focuses on one pressing issue: not our research projects, not a promising new pedagogy, but what to do about assessment. Assessment has become such a critical problem for teachers of the liberal arts that we spend our time talking about little else. Could it really have been the intention of the creators of “outcomes assessment” to distract educators from their primary responsibilities?

Accrediting agencies exist to review colleges’ financial records, ensure that administrators perform their defined duties, determine whether faculty credentials reflect the required subject area expertise, and consider whether facilities such as libraries are adequate to facilitate student learning. Agencies also use outcomes assessment to examine whether institutions of higher learning are fulfilling their responsibilities to students. Outcomes assessment seems to make perfect sense: colleges must demonstrate that students actually learn something while they are enrolled.

If outcomes assessment were just a commonsense analysis of whether colleges are living up to their responsibilities, there would be no problem. However, the whole process of assessment has taken on a life of its own. Demands on college administrators and faculty have risen exponentially. For instance, the length of my own college’s report submitted to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), made each ten years, is approximately two-hundred-and-sixty pages, with nearly one thousand supporting documents that vary from one to twenty pages in length. Twenty-plus pages per year over ten years may not sound so bad, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. SACS demands ongoing assessment from each department, from each program, and, in some ways from each course. Teachers and administrators are now responsible not merely for teaching effectively—they must continually devise methods to demonstrate that they are teaching effectively.

The Wall Street Journal reports that SACS insisted that the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, change its method of grading exams. Some questions on student exams must be graded by all the literature professors who taught a class on Shakespeare. But does trading exams between instructors really assure a more objective evaluation of exams? Do more objective grading standards ensure that students are learning? Has this theory been tested, or is SACS merely assuming that such methods will bring about better learning outcomes? Perhaps SACS is acting on a hunch—much like professors who assume that reading Shakespeare will teach students something, perhaps something important that is difficult to evaluate on a spreadsheet.

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