“The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes’”
Molly Worthen, The New York Times Sunday Review, February 23, 2018
The ballooning assessment industry — including the tech companies and consulting firms that profit from assessment — is a symptom of higher education's crisis, not a solution to it. It preys especially on less prestigious schools and contributes to the system's deepening divide into a narrow tier of elite institutions primarily serving the rich and a vast landscape of glorified trade schools for everyone else. …
The obsession with testing that dominates primary education invaded universities, bringing with it a large support staff. Here is the first irony of learning assessment: Faced with outrage over the high cost of higher education, universities responded by encouraging expensive administrative bloat. …
If we describe college courses as mainly delivery mechanisms for skills to please a future employer, if we imply that history, literature and linguistics are more or less interchangeable “content” that convey the same mental tools, we oversimplify the intellectual complexity that makes a university education worthwhile in the first place. We end up using the language of the capitalist marketplace and speak to our students as customers rather than fellow thinkers. They deserve better.
After a quarter century of dominance, the educationistic fad of assessment seems finally to be running out of steam.
“An Insider's Take on Assessment: It May Be Worse Than You Thought”
Erik Gilbert, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 12, 2018
Because it's fairly obvious that assessment has not caused (and probably will not cause) positive changes in student learning, and because it's clear that this has been an open secret for a while, one wonders why academic administrators have been so acquiescent about assessment for so long.
Here's why: It's no accident that the rise of learning-outcomes assessment has coincided with a significant expansion in the use of adjunct faculty, the growth of dual enrollment, and the spread of online education. Each of these allows administrators to deliver educational product to their customers with little or no involvement from the traditional faculty. If they are challenged on the quality of these programs, they can always point out that assessment results indicate that the customers are learning just as much as the students in traditional courses.
Gilbert's explanation is somewhat plausible for large research universities, but the push for assessment started before the other trends he cites really took hold, and it has been equally powerful at liberal-arts colleges that have been much less influenced by those other trends.
On the other hand, research universities and liberal-arts colleges have suffered about equally from administrative hypertrophy and bloat. My guess is that the assessment fad caught on so well because it reinforced and seemed to justify the expansion of administrative power at the expense of faculty and cooperative governance.
Encountering this article has led me to resusciatate and republish an essay that I wrote almost twenty years ago, in response to a spectacularly cynical piece of advocacy.