ASSESSMENT: FAD or FACILITATOR
I'm hearing a lot about "assessment" in higher education these days. There are seminars on assessment, conferences about it, assessment programs, and assessment specialists popping up all over. It reminds me of the days when we heard a lot about "Management by Objectives," and about "TQM" a decade ago. Every decade seems to have its hot topic in business and in education. I'm fairly certain that most major fields of endeavor have them. I still smile about the "new math" of the 60's. It seems like just yesterday.
Recently an "expert" on assessment came to our school and gave a presentation to our faculty on assessment. I think it is only proper to assess that presentation. To be fair about it, I will admit to sleeping in that morning and not attending the presentation. But that allows me to unbiased in my assessment. How can I make such an outrageous statement? It's easy. Most good presenters are able to sway their audience toward their view of things through motivational speaking, regardless of whether that which they are promoting is worthwhile or not. How else can the success of time-shares and home shopping network be explained?
My assessment is based on the elaborate PowerPoint slides that were prepared and shown by the presenter. These slides capture the essential points of assessment without the fluff and bias that motivational speakers are capable of using to disguise content. And so I hereby present my assessment of assessment as presented by the expert on assessment.
Slide one simply says: "Your Goals for Today." Except for that, it was blank. Attendees who reported back to me said that our School's goals and objectives (whatever the difference is) were presented and argued about for the um-teenth time, and that the 'expert' commented on the fact that not only did we have too many objectives, but that some were very difficult to assess. Score one for the expert.
This brings the issue of objectives to the forefront – like 'Management By Objectives' did 20 or 30 years ago. Why do organizations set objectives? Should you only set objectives that are measurable? Can non-measurable objectives be helpful? We have been told that if we have a stated objective, we must measure it. I think that focusing only on objectives that are measurable or easily measurable can be terribly limiting and biased -- causing us to avoid other worthy pursuits.
The first objective of our School is to "Provide an innovative business education that produces graduates who are recognized as superior to their peers." Oops. Better scratch that one. Too hard to measure, unless we can start evaluating other schools' graduates along with our own. To be fair, this first goal was broken down into nine smaller goals like, "Offer applications-driven programs." That one is fairly easy to measure. We simply offer at least two such programs (since 'programs' is plural) and mark that goal as measured. However, I'm not sure what an "applications-driven" program is. If we have our accounting students use Excel spreadsheets for all accounting courses, is that sufficient?
Another sub goal was to "Establish a School of Business Internship/Placement Center." Hmmm... Do students actually have to use this center or does it just have to exist? How many students have to use it and how often? What if our placement center only places students as garbage collectors? What if we give those jobs to the economics majors so they can study supply and demand?
Enough about goals and objectives. The next slide of importance (subjective opinion) said that assessment has, "... been around for over 20 years." Well, I've got another fact. Schools have been around for many centuries. How did they ever educate people without having assessment? Answer: They probably had more time to devote to it.
This slide went on to point out why we now have assessment requirements. It is because of state governments, federal government, regional "accreditors," and national "accreditors." So, the bureaucracies are behind it. The "No Child Left Behind" program comes immediately to mind. The private schools don't have as much bureaucratic pressure as we public schools, so they can charge more tuition and provide better education. At least that's what I see in the top schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton.
Another slide said: "Assessment is the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development." (Polomba & Banta, 1999) I agree with this. That's why I give exams to my students. A subsequent slide says that course exams don't measure programs. Okay. Let's have some program exams.
The slide after this said: "It involves making our expectations explicit and public; setting appropriate criteria and high standards for learning quality; systematically gathering, analyzing and interpreting the evidence to determine who well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using the resulting information to document, explain and improve performance." After a third reading of this, I decided that "...learning quality..." must mean "quality learning," although I do teach my operations management students about quality. I'm still trying to translate "...determine who well performance matches those..."
"Program assessment measures student learning, NOT faculty teaching." Now this is an unfortunate aspect of assessment – but certainly a welcome one for most faculty. It's equivalent to blaming bad music on the musicians but not on the composer.
"How Assessment Causes Change: What is measured is valued. What is ignored, doesn't exist." Whoa! Does this mean I should stop doing anything that isn't measured? That will make my teaching job a lot easier. Combine this with the fact that assessment doesn't measure faculty teaching, and you have absolved faculty from doing anything except assessment.
The presentation contained 78 PowerPoint slides, and things got pretty deep and convoluted. But to put it in perspective, our School has 5 major objectives, which are broken down into 39 component objectives. I figure that if we are going to measure all 39 of these, we will need a busload of auditors and statisticians working full time. Otherwise faculty will be spending all of their time assessing goals at the expense of achieving them. That would leave us attaining only one of our goals – the goal of assessment. And assessment isn't even one of the stated goals. I don't even want to think about assessing assessment.
And so goes the latest trend in higher education.