Why Are We Assessing?

We’re about halfway to our next Middle States deadline:  April 1, for final drafts of Working Group reports.  We’re also about halfway through the spring semester.  In the midst of managing the tasks of self-study and re-accreditation, not to mention our usual cycles of assessment, it can be good to stop and ask, why are we assessing?

This piece by Linda Suskie, former VP for Middle States and author of Assessing Student Learning:  A Common Sense Guide, was published several years ago, but its call to reflect strikes one as still bearing relevance.  (Dr. Brigitte Valesey, in her guest post, also notes Suskie’s work.)  Suskie suggests we ask some straightforward questions about student learning:  what have our students learned?  are we satisfied with what they have learned?  if not, what are we doing about it?

She addresses the usual claims underlying demands for assessment, arguing that we cannot ask the people we serve to take the value of a college education for granted, especially in the current political and economic climate.  But I found this section of the essay to resonate particularly, because it gets at the real value of higher education when it works the way we want it to:

The most important purpose of assessment should not be improvement or accountability but their common aim:  Everyone wants students to get the best possible education.  Everyone wants them to learn what’s most important.  A college’s mission statement and goals are essentially promises that the college is making to its students, their families, employers, and society.  Today’s world needs people with the attributes we promise.  We need skilled writers, thinkers, problem-solvers, and leaders.  We need people who are prepared to act ethically, to help those in need, and to participate meaningfully in an increasingly diverse and global society.  Imagine what the world would be like if every one of our graduates achieved the goals we promise them!

Of course, we don’t have to wait for Assessment Day or the final version of our self-study to ask these questions.  As we embark on the second half of the semester we can each ask:  what have our students learned so far, and are they well on the way to achieving the goals we’ve set?



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