The Difference Between Good and Bad Assessment

A recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review questioned “The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes’”. UNC Professor Molly Worthen raised many of the concerns one often hears in debates about the necessity of assessment in higher education:

  • Bureaucratic number-crunching is a waste of everyone’s time
  • The purpose of higher ed isn’t to mass produce laborers for the workforce
  • Assessment provides a scapegoat (professors) when more structural factors are more to blame for poor student performance

These complaints are all valid. However, they presume an assessment monolith that simply doesn’t exist. To talk about assessment in higher education, you have to understand that there’s a difference between good and bad assessment, and it largely has to do with how you convert your outcomes data into continuous instructional improvement (sometimes called closed-loop assessment).

If an institution is collecting outcomes data and only using that to satisfy an accreditation requirement, then that is a waste of everyone’s time. Another version of this is the institution that changes assessment strategy so frequently that there’s no consistency in the results from one year to the next. However, when a school commits to an assessment strategy, applies it consistently across campus, and uses the results to identify gaps and improve them, everybody wins. The institution is still checking the appropriate box for their accreditation, faculty are getting meaningful results to inform their own professional development and course design, and students get a better education.

The complaint that colleges do not exist solely to prepare students for a job after they graduate is a common refrain in higher education. Isn’t it true that college exists to teach us not what to think, but how to think? Fortunately, that’s exactly what the knowledge economy needs and wants in the 21st century: strong critical thinkers who are able to work in teams, solve complex problems, and communicate clearly. Teaching these skills isn’t easy, and it’s almost never done consistently—but foundational skills like these are exactly the kinds of things assessments were made for.

Assessment fatigue is nothing new, and it’s one of the main reasons that gaining faculty buy-in usually tops the lists of provost concerns when it comes to adopting an assessment strategy. When selecting an assessment tool, schools should look for those that emphasize continuous instructional improvement so that they, like their students, can get a meaningful return on their investment.