Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It's Time to Assess SLO Assessment

Student Learning Outcomes (SLO) Assessment began in the second term of the Bush Administration as one response to the growing discontent voiced by business people and parents, who thought that higher education was turning out graduates at a very high cost but without the skills and knowledge needed to be productive workers and citizens.  Accrediting agencies adopted the approach and it is gradually filtering into every level of higher education.  

Here at Ashland considerable resources were put towards assessment, both in dollars and in faculty, student, and administrators' time.  On pain of not being re-accredited, we were expected to develop a “culture of assessment” (as opposed, say, to a culture of learning).  But is there any solid evidence that SLO assessment actually improves student learning?  In this column, Dean Erik Gilbert argues that no one knows.   It is high time this question was asked and answered in a serious way.  Not everyone argues that SLO Assessment is completely useless, though there are some who do. The real questions are these: does the time, effort, and money spent on SLO assessment yield increments of learning commensurate with the costs?  And, does the approach to teaching, learning, and the human soul implied in assessment actually do some harm to teaching and learning?  Here are Erik Gilbert's conclusions: 
If advocates could point to evidence that good assessment has led to improvements that are external to the process itself — like changes in a college’s reputation, ranking, or employment prospects for its students — I suspect faculty would give it more support.
Assessment is one of those things that we keep telling ourselves will pay off if we could just get it right, but we never seem to get there. It’s time for us to demand that the accreditors who are driving assessment provide evidence that it offers benefits commensurate with the expense that goes into it. We should no longer accept on faith or intuition that learning-outcomes assessment has positive and consequential effects on our institutions — or students.
Here is the whole column:
Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Who Knows?
By Erik Gilbert 
AUGUST 14, 2015

Last year the younger of my two sons went off to college. As we went through the search process, we looked at university and department websites, checked faculty research interests, looked for evidence of faculty involving students in their research, flinched at the prices, marveled at the climbing walls, and considered quality of the food on campus. Basically we did all the things a typical middle-class family would do in a college search, along with a few insider concerns like looking at faculty publications and grants and checking that the university libraries had at least one of my books. In retrospect one question that never crossed my mind was, "I wonder what this place’s assessment program is like?" I suspect I am not alone in this.
My lack of curiosity about assessment when making an important choice about my children’s education probably surprises no one, but it should. It’s unsurprising in that no one, higher-ed insider or not, ever seems to worry about this when choosing a college. No admissions officer ever touted his institution’s assessment results. No parent ever exclaimed, "Suzy just got into Prestigious College X. I hear they are just nailing their student learning outcomes!" But it’s still a little surprising in that I am a professor and an administrator who has been involved in assessment in various forms for a long time. I have been dutifully doing assessment in my classes almost since I started teaching a decade and half ago.