The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"There is no great concurrence between learning and wisdom."....  ....Sir Francis Bacon.

Commentary of the Day - September 9, 2007: Assessmentdelirium.  Guest commentary by Carolyn Segal.

There's a wonderful word that describes the mania for orchid collecting in the nineteenth century: orchidelirium.  I've thought of it frequently as a similar manifestation -- assessment delirium -- has whirled through and shaken the halls and syllabi of colleges and universities.

Even while administrators and teachers at all levels are decrying the deleterious effects of the "No Child Left Behind" program on high-school math and reading skills, the current mania regarding outcomes-assessment in colleges is a result of the trickle-up of that very program.

Unfortunately, what we have produced in many instances is not better students or better programs but a tsunami of assessment language.  My syllabus is now eight pages long: I am required to include goals and outcomes, along with a paragraph discussing "the relationship of grades to grading criteria, requirements, and outcomes."  The result of this dizzying meta-practice in its early stages was that students simply avoided the syllabus like the plague.  I now highlight the concrete information and give an open-book quiz on the syllabus -- not only to help the students deconstruct what the course demands but to protect myself later in any lawsuits.

The experiences of my own three children in their elementary, middle, and high schools from 1985-2006 allowed me to have a clear view of the muddied and muddled instigation of the standards established so that no child would be left behind -- or allowed to go very far.  First, there were the categories -- "exceeds", "meets", "fails to meet" -- labels that stood alone without any follow-up for the third, failing designation for several years.  And one could, I might add, meet and even exceed the low standards established quite easily.  Then there was the leap in number of days spent on standardized tests (from 3 or 5 to 21-- or what amounted to nearly a month's worth of school days), and the rise and fall of the integrated math program, which in fact neglected to integrate whole areas of math, such as multiplication tables and algebra.

I still recall the day -- a bright, sunny Thursday in April of 1992, on the morning after parent-teacher conferences at the elementary school -- when it first occurred to me that the wave of mediocrity I was seeing in my children's schools would eventually crash down on the shores of higher education.

One problem is that language is put in place without adequate provisions for follow-up.  What happens when I review a first-semester senior's portfolio and determine that she hasn't met the standard?  There is nothing in the college catalog that explains that students may be required to remain for a fifth, remedial year.  And the student may argue justifiably that she should have been told sooner.  In fact, although we lacked the present terminology, quizzes, tests, and exit surveys have long served as "outcomes assessment" (the truest test of all is alumni loyalty and giving).  Furthermore, students in professional majors such as education, nursing, and engineering must already take standardized exams for licensing.  The adoption of federally mandated standardized tests at the college and university level, recently proposed by the Department of Education, will result not in raising standards but in leveling or lowering them.  Moreover, the requirement, as Shirley M. Tilghman, the President of Princeton University, pointed out in her commencement address, raises a serious question regarding academic freedom.

Finally, the tests will not serve as helpful indicators: how does one measure, on the eve of graduation, a student's potential for applying not only the concrete information she has acquired (see the May 5, 2007 Irascible Professor commentary of the day, "The Assessment Sting," by Peter Berger), but also those moments of chance inspiration of her undergraduate education?  As Dr. Tilghman went on to say,

"[I]t is impossible to imagine a set of standardized tests that could accurately measure what our faculty aspire to impart to their students.  . . .  [W]hen it comes to the question of "How do you know you are providing your students with a good education?" my answer is as follows: "We can't really know until their 25th Reunion, because the real measure of a Princeton education is the manifold ways it is used by Princetonians after they leave the University" ("2007 President's Commencement Remarks," 5 June 2007).

For the longer term, who (or what test) can fully predict "outcomes"?  By all standards of measurement, I must have appeared to be a profound failure for at least seven years, during which time I did apparently nothing with my doctoral degree and published very little scholarly or creative work.  I was in my forties when I began a full-time professorship and began writing for a national publication.

Outcome assessment that attempts to measure the success of our students as a reflection of our classes, must also take into account the quality of the student that we accept.  Faculty members at small tuition-driven private colleges like mine and large public institutions with open enrollment policies work to educate students but they cannot work miracles.

One thing I do know is that filling out ceaseless rounds of paperwork explaining what my students will (ideally, hopefully) accomplish takes precious time away from preparation and scholarship.  Here is a sample question from an accreditation-driven form required for all core-curriculum courses at my institution:

Explain how this course will address the standards. . . . Standard II.  The ability to evaluate the relative merits of alternative bodies of knowledge and modes of interpretation on the basis of their assumptions, casual beliefs, normative commitments and/or practical implications...

Rather than attempting to perform mind-numbing exercises like this one, we might take a step back and begin to (really) evaluate college experiences, beginning with such basic questions as how many writing courses do we require?  What do we have in place to help students who are struggling in first year classes?  What do our particular students need?  What weaknesses are consistently apparent in student performance?  How can we best remedy those problems?  Which of our existing programs and courses are the most successful?  Why and how?  Is there a balance between academic divisions and departments?  Do we make promises that we can't keep?  Is there a pattern of short-term "fixes" for both students and the college in general that have proven to be no help in the long run?  What sorts of questions are we asking in our exit interviews, are we asking them clearly, and are we following up on those answers, or simply filing them away to satisfy a quota of paperwork?  In addition to Peter Berger's piece mentioned above, two Chronicle Review essays offer further commentary: see Steven J. Tepper, "The Creative Campus.  Who’s Number 1?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 October 2004, B6-8, and George D. Kuh, "How to Help Students Achieve," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 June 2007, B12-13.

Dr. Tilghman's remarks, along with a growing number of articles assessing assessment, give me hope.  So does the ironic fact that a significant number of college presidents are just saying no to participating in at least one form of assessment: the rankings system of "America's Best Colleges" of U.S. News and World Report.  My own college has replaced the core curriculum of 2005 with a fuller -- and clearer program -- and has simplified its forms. All of these things are for the good: we need to be very careful that our students aren’t once again left behind.

2007 Carolyn Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is an Associate Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The IP comments: Carolyn raises some excellent points about the assessment craze.  Two are particularly important.  One is the notion that one cannot properly assess learning outcomes without also considering inputs.  Students are not widgets that can be honed to an arbitrary level of sharpness.  They vary enormously in background, talent, and ambition.  No matter how good the teacher, learning cannot be guaranteed even if the student is motivated to learn.  In some cases lack of appropriate background is an insurmountable barrier, and in others lack of appropriate talent may also be an insurmountable barrier.  Current assessment rubrics generally don't take into account student characteristics.  The second important point is that it often takes years to determine just how much a student has gotten out of a particular course, but the assessment mavens insist on instantaneous judgments.

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