New America Weekly

"Assessment" Doesn't Have to Be a Dirty Word

Weekly Article
March 31, 2016

Assessment” isn’t a dirty word. “Standardized assessment” isn’t, either. And yet the way the pair turns heads and purses lips would make one think the schoolboy who whispered them would be damned (oops) to scrawl across a whiteboard, “I will not use the word ‘assessment’,” until his Expo marker dries up. (Yes, a whiteboard. This is 2016. Nobody uses chalkboards anymore.)

Fredrik DeBoer, however, is not so easily scandalized. In fact, the academic and writer remains so unfazed by the notion of assessments that his recent body of work is peppered with the word. It includes the white paper, Standardized Assessments of College Learning: Past and Future, the article, “We Need to Assess Assessments”, and a provocative panel discussion, The Future of College Assessment, moderated by New America’s education policy program director Kevin Carey. In each of these recent works, DeBoer has provided the higher education community a thought-provoking report on the state of college assessment today. Amongst them, DeBoer offers recommendations for how the industry might best move forward on the topic of assessment. And, at the center of it all, DeBoer contends that a true solution cannot come from individual actors, but from an interdisciplinary approach that welcomes a collective group—administrators, faculty, policymakers, and students alike—to solve the assessment issue.

DeBoer, a self-proclaimed humanist, calls on his own personal experiences at Purdue University, where he is a limited term lecturer, and where governor turned president Mitch Daniels made faculty members’ blood boil after calling for assessments to measure student gains in critical thinking and other skills while at the university. The clash fueled DeBoer’s interest in the issue, and has affirmed for the lecturer that, “Assessment is not going away, and standardized assessment is not going away.”

Consider, also, that an increasing number of politicians, like Daniels, and businesspeople with no formal background in education are being appointed to university presidencies and chancellorships. And if, as DeBoer noted, statistics and assessment are the language of the policy world, the proliferation of non-academic appointments in university administrations would indicate that assessment in higher education will only continue to spread.

According to DeBoer, universities’ “trust us” defense against questions of whether theirs is a worthy endeavor is no longer enough to satisfy an increasingly deafening public outcry over rocketing higher education costs and mountainous student loan debt. Assessment made to measure the merit of these institutions is here to stay, and it’s now up to those in and out of higher education to figure out how it will be executed. But as DeBoer laid out during the panel discussion, it’s a false choice between invasive assessments that disrupt and corrupt learning and no assessment at all.

DeBoer’s fellow panelist, Roger Benjamin, President of the Council for Aid to Education, heads the organization responsible for publishing the prominent and widely-used Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), and added that human capital is increasingly being recognized as our (and any) society’s greatest resource. As such, Benjamin said, higher education is primed to be the next candidate of a focused, concerted effort by policymakers to ensure quality outcomes.

It should be noted that, per DeBoer, many faculty members do want to assess their students so they can confirm that students are indeed learning and developing critical thinking skills. The issue is who controls assessment, and it’s one that stands at the center of a heated debate between faculty, administrators, policymakers, and the public. DeBoer and Benjamin agree that local control via faculty members in assessment development is critical because even departments of the same discipline—and sometimes members of the same department—oftentimes vehemently disagree on the language used, order of content delivery, and theories presented in a disciplinary education.

Members of the audience and panel seemed to equally and easily agree that local control of assessments is imperative. Further, when asked by audience member Debbie Altenburg, Director of Federal Relations for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, why students would want to take such an assessment, DeBoer offered that motivation to get students to put in top effort on assessments is a major challenge.

This central issue recalls (at least to the current undergraduate writing this piece) two findings from Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace’s Generation Z Goes to College, a book written to provide higher education professionals the information and tools they need to maximize educational impact for students born in between 1995 and 2010, who are quickly replacing Millennials on college campuses.

On making major decisions about college, Seemiller and Grace reported that two-thirds of Generation Z students view their preparation for life after college—in the working world and otherwise—as a responsibility shared by themselves and their institutions. “Generation Z students,” they wrote, “are realistic problem solvers who appreciate honesty and authenticity from those who lead them...They would rather face an issue head-on and be part of the solution. With their problem-solving nature and desire to be consulted in decision-making, it is a win-win scenario for those working with Generation Z students to be transparent and involve them in addressing issues.

And so, as Seemiller and Grace report, undergraduates do care that their time in college prepares (and opens a door for) them to enter the world of work. More importantly, undergraduates believe that preparation requires a partnership with their universities, and they’re ready to tackle the core challenge that DeBoer identifies: finding a centrist solution to the invasive-or-no assessment problem. That is, of course, provided that students can see that assessments provide a real value in preparing them for post-graduate life. It is possible, then, that today’s undergraduates might be more willing to take and put forward top effort in such assessments.

At the heart, all parties—DeBoer, Benjamin, Daniels, faculty, policymakers, the public, and, yes, even undergraduates—are chiefly concerned that colleges and universities are providing today’s undergraduates an experience and an education that, at minimum, yields a positive return on the increasingly large investment made to obtain them. To make sure that return is realized, according to most, some type of assessment will be necessary. And while it doesn’t seem that a quick and easy fix is on the horizon, DeBoer notes that the stakes are too high for any of us to be scared of a little heavy lifting. Plus, if we welcome faculty, local administration, and students into the assessment process, each will see themselves as partners and not targets, allowing the collective solution to be one that works better for and is agreeable to all.

Perhaps then we all might consider “assessment” to be something other than just a dirty word.