What Assessment Is Really About

Measuring student outcomes is ultimately about trying to improve teaching and learning, and professors should both support and lead such efforts, writes Kate Drezek McConnell.

March 1, 2018

The text came in when my cell signal returned, just as our car crossed over the eastern slope of the Allegheny Mountains. My mother’s message read simply: “On the front page of the opinion section … below the fold and half of page 6. Mailing to you Monday.” My husband, daughter and I were on our way home from a weekend in the mountains of West Virginia. My mother, 11 hours north of us in Boston, was enjoying her Sunday routine, which always involved the print version of The New York Times. I had told her to keep an eye out for an opinion piece that was posted electronically at the start of the weekend, one that had those of us in higher education buzzing about it since it hit.

This was a first for me: my vocation was being called on the carpet in the Times by a fellow academic. My chosen profession, higher education assessment, was reduced to pithy descriptions like “bureaucratic behemoth” and “supposedly data-driven” and “expensive administrative bloat.” I had to laugh at the sudden fame bestowed upon my rather inside-baseball profession. In a family full of cops and lawyers, I often struggled to say, precisely and concisely, what I did for a living. In contrast, my brother gets to tell people that he is the real-life inspiration for Agent Callen on NCIS: Los Angeles. My story? Much less exciting.

For years my shorthand answer to the “And what do you do for a living?” question was that I helped colleges and universities make sure that they fulfill the promise of their brochures to students and parents. According to Molly Worthen, in her piece entitled “The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes,’” I was at best a well-intentioned if unwitting collaborator with for-profit technology companies, reactionary academic leadership and demanding employers, against which she -- an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- and others like her stood ready to defend the life of the mind. While my colleagues on the assessment professionals’ email list dissected her argument line by line, my heart went out to the individuals who work in assessment at Chapel Hill. Though I do not know them personally, it is not a large stretch of the imagination to think that the coming workweek would be a difficult one.

Worthen’s op-ed covered an ambitious amount of territory under the guise of addressing measuring student learning: perceived cracks in the regional accreditation system, states’ divestment in public education, larger societal ills thwarting the ability of institutions of higher learning to educate, and even former education secretary Margaret Spellings herself, providing perhaps unintended proof of the beautiful, important significance and continuing power of academic freedom, considering Spellings’s current position -- president of the University of North Carolina system, and therefore Worthen’s boss. I will leave it to others in a better position than me to address what I see as Worthen’s false dichotomy between the life of the mind and the dignity of work, the deficit-model positioning of socioeconomic status in her argument, and issues of institutional inequity, and focus exclusively on her conceptions of assessing student learning.

As someone who spent the better part of the last 15 years working on campuses in assessment and evaluation, I know firsthand the joys and challenges inherent to that role. I fully recognize that there are places where “assessment” remains a dirty word and faculty expertise is not included as part of the process.

That said, such examples should not define assessment writ large. In my current job as senior director for research and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, I have the unique privilege of working with faculty and assessment professionals (individuals who, frankly, are often one and the same) across the spectrum of institutions, from the flagship state institutions and elite private colleges and universities that dominate any number of prestige rankings to the community colleges, four-year regional comprehensives and less-than-elite regional private institutions, a.k.a. the rest of higher education, which happen to be the institutions that actually educate the majority of today’s students.

And what do I work with them to do? Precisely the opposite of the kind of assessment described by Worthen. Well before I joined the organization, at a time when simplistic quantification of learning was the coin of the realm, AAC&U championed the role of faculty expertise in teaching, learning and assessment and created an alternative approach to standardized tests, the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics. For the uninitiated, rubrics are simply an explicit articulation of (1) faculty expectations of students vis-à-vis their learning, as well as (2) descriptions of what student work looks like at progressively higher levels of performance.

And how did AAC&U create the VALUE rubrics? By engaging interdisciplinary teams of faculty members from across the country to author the rubrics, and then making them available to everyone, for free, via a simple Word or PDF download from our website.

The rubrics themselves are now almost a decade old and have proven to be an essential resource locally to campuses as well as the foundation of national-level experiments in assessing student learning. Philosophically, pedagogically and methodologically, VALUE is designed to afford faculty the opportunity to flex their creative muscles and capture evidence that the curriculum they own and the courses they teach do indeed promote students’ development of the very learning outcomes that are essential to a liberal, and liberating, education.

Far from a reductionist tool, research has demonstrated that the VALUE rubrics empower faculty members to help translate the learning that takes place when a student completes an assignment they crafted, one that aligns with and promotes disciplinary knowledge, and -- at its best -- gives students not just the requisite skills for the single assignment, but also advances the ultimate purpose of college teaching: long-term retention of knowledge, skills and abilities and the ability to transfer those skills to a completely new or novel situation. Translation: no “one-off,” single exam question should ever “count” as a proxy for student learning along complex constructs like critical thinking. The educational psychologist in me rails against such simplistic conceptions of learning, and our approaches to assessment must do so as well.

But the elephant in the room is this: doing so requires that faculty be all in when it comes to undergraduate teaching. Threaded throughout Worthen’s piece is a vision of students coming to our campuses (if not her own) laden with baggage, whose deficits, when coupled with unreasonable demands from callous lawmakers or corrupt capitalists, doom them to failure. Intentional or not, Worthen’s opposition to assessing student learning reads as but a strawman for a much more harmful argument: protecting the life of the mind by writing off entire segments of our society from the intellectual and, yes, economically transformative power of higher education.

It is time faculty fully adopt the mantle of educator and demand of themselves the same rigorous standards for ascertaining student learning as they do to establishing the credibility of their own disciplinary research. And yet …

Worthen’s perceptions do not come out of a vacuum. Whether the result of her own lived experience or the powerful anecdote shared by her colleague at Arkansas State University, those of us who represent the field of assessment must not dismiss her concerns out of hand. As someone representing a national organization, I am now in a position to say certain things to faculty and administrators that I would not necessarily have been empowered to say when working on a campus. Of late, that includes truth telling to members of my own tribe.

Last fall, I was invited to give the closing keynote for the 30th anniversary of the Virginia Assessment Group, the state’s association for assessment professionals, for which I twice served as president when I was still working at Virginia Tech. In my talk, I challenged my Virginia friends -- all of whom care deeply about student learning at the individual level and a high-quality educational experience at the institutional level -- to look in the mirror and have an honest conversation with the person staring back at them.

My thinking on this has evolved and sharpened over the past few months -- months that included attending at least one regional accreditation meeting as well as AAC&U’s annual meeting, aptly focused on whether or not higher education can recapture the elusive American dream. With all of this in mind, I say to my fellow travelers working to measure student learning:

  • If your definition of quality is methodologically reductionist, then assessment is not for you.
  • If your conception of learning does not encompass the inherent complexities of making meaning within and integrating across disciplines, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you see black and white when the world of the mind radiates color and nuance, assessment is not for you.
  • If your sole claim to fame is memorization of accreditation standards, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot reflect on your own path as a learner, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot stretch to be what your faculty, institutions and students need you to be, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot speak truth to power, including your provost and president, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot promote collaborative processes on your campus, have no tolerance for ambiguity or cannot listen and really hear the concerns of the likes of Worthen, then assessment is not for you.

It is incumbent upon us -- those of us with responsibility for measuring and then sharing what we know about student learning on our campuses -- to belie the easy stereotype of the bureaucratic bean counter, and to avail ourselves of every opportunity to center our work within the teaching enterprise, just as it is our responsibility to counter any and all strawman arguments about what it is that we value.

As we descended in elevation to our home in the Blue Ridge, despite the tone of Worthen’s piece, I found myself excited that the assessment narrative has evolved to its current state, and looking forward to continuing the work into the future.


Kate Drezek McConnell is senior director for research and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top