On Assessment

I recently received in the mail a document containing the first cogent argument I've seen for the proposition that college faculty should participate in the unprofessional and tedious activities known in the jargon of educationists as “assessment processes.” It's an advertisement for a new report, “Proclaiming and Sustaining Excellence: Assessment as a Faculty Role,” by Karen Maitland Schilling and Karl L. Schilling, issued by the Educational Resources Information Center as part of the ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Series.

The advertisement includes an essay by the editor of the series, Jonathan D. Fife, summarizing the report in about eight hundred words. Fife begins by conceding that faculty are often skeptical about, even contemptuous of, assessment processes. Moreover, he acknowledges that this skepticism is justified, inasmuch as there is usually no connection between what the assessment process is supposed to find out and what, if anything, it actually yields:

Anyone who has been around higher education for any length of time has seen some form of assessment process produce dysfunctional results. There are several reasons for such outcomes. The most common is that there may be no link between why something is being assessed and the results. (boldface in original)

After some discussion of other inevitable defects in assessment processes (“inappropriate or incomplete methodology” and the suppression of data that might lead to unfavorable results), Fife observes that despite the pointlessness of assessment processes, people are demanding them more and more insistently:

There is no denying the increased pressure being placed on higher education to produce more evaluative data about its activities. Leading this pressure for more accountability are the expectations of stakeholders — students, parents, employers, and taxpayers. Although these stakeholders still hold higher education in high esteem, they want more concrete evidence that what is being promised is being delivered.

Fife explains this desire as the consequence of an irrational faith in the deliverances of computers, combined with the public's increasing familiarity with similarly pointless pseudo-measurements in business, medicine, government, and so on:

As people's faith increases in computers' ability to analyze assessment data and as computers are more easily programmed to handle increasingly complex data, more reliance is placed on the results of assessment. Because people are increasingly coming to expect assessment data in all other areas of their lives, they no longer are content with the lack of assessment data related to higher education.

Since reliance on assessment processes is unfounded, and since the discontent described in the last sentence is nothing more than a symptom of a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder induced by the proliferation of factoids in American culture, one would expect a Higher Education Report to offer advice and constructive suggestions for resisting the increased pressure that Fife mentions and for educating the public about the limitations of computers and data processing. (I have found that the familiar proverb “garbage in, garbage out” is a useful starting point in such discussions.)

On the contrary, however, Fife continues:

Assessment of the teaching/learning process is no longer an option. Assessment is a fact of life.

Fife takes the view that forces behind assessment are just too strong. Since you can't beat them, you must join them. To faculty members who want to preserve academic freedom, not to mention self-respect, this may seem somewhat defeatist. Fife sees it as simply realistic.

The good news is that if faculty members can overcome their scruples and accept assessment processes as “a fact of life,” it is very easy to rig them. Recall that there is no connection between what an assessment process is supposed to find out and the actual results of performing it. So nothing is really lost if one simply selects postulates and methodologies that guarantee the desired outcome:

No matter what is driving the increased pressure for assessment, a fundamental truth is that the underlying assumptions that create an assessment process determine the results. The accuracy of the assumptions, the careful linking of these assumptions with the process, and the interpretation of the findings depend on who is involved in the assessment process. Consequently, faculty must get involved with the assessment of teaching and learning, or someone else will make the decisions about the basic assumptions that form the process of assessment. (boldface in original)

In other words, since the results of an assessment process are unrelated to the actual quality of teaching and learning, but are instead determined by the beliefs and values of the designers of the process, it is important for faculty who are being compelled to undergo an assessment process to participate in its design; otherwise, there is no way to ensure that the results will advance faculty interests. I haven't seen the Schillings' report, but according to Fife it contains valuable advice about how to put in the fix.

At first I was taken aback by Fife's candor and, I admit, a little shocked by his cynicism and his ready abandonment of intellectual integrity. I have subsequently discovered, however, that he holds a doctorate in education.