Remember all of that talk from the Spellings Commission about how American colleges were in danger of decline because they didn’t assess learning outcomes and didn’t even know the learning outcomes they favored? A study being released today by the Association of American Colleges and Universities finds that in fact assessment has been well accepted for years at most colleges, and is widespread, complete with learning outcomes.
What isn’t widespread and should be, the study says, is communication with students about curricular goals and how the colleges measure them. And what also isn’t widespread (and this doesn’t bother many of those surveyed) are national comparisons. Much of the activity on assessment and learning outcomes takes place at the departmental level, the survey found.
AAC&U’s survey was of chief academic officers at its member institutions, and 433 responded — from colleges that are public and private, large and small, two- and four-year.
Among the key findings:
* 78 percent reported having a "common set of intended learning outcomes" for all undergraduates. These included such skills as writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, oral communication, intercultural skills and so forth. Knowledge areas are also frequently cited and include humanities, social sciences, mathematics and global culture.
* 72 percent are assessing learning outcomes across the curriculum, and most that don’t already do so plan to begin soon.
* Most assessment goes on at the departmental level, although almost half of colleges assess in some way at both the departmental level and in general education.
* A variety of measures — many of them specific to departments or even to individual students — are used in assessment. More than one third of colleges report using "capstone" projects — designed to sum up an academic program — or student surveys.
* E-portfolios are gaining in popularity, with 57 percent of colleges using them in some form, but only 42 percent report that they are part of assessment efforts.
* The percentages of colleges reporting the use of standardized tests of general knowledge and general skills are low — 16 percent and 26 percent respectively.
* Only 5 percent of those surveyed said that they thought all students understood the intended learning outcomes. And when the bar for answering that question in the affirmative is lowered — to only a majority of students — the figure goes up, but only to 37 percent.
Carol Geary Schneider, president of the association, said that the data show an "emerging consensus" in higher education that learning outcomes matter, that assessment matters, and that national comparisons are not quite as important.
Given all the debate about assessment in the past few years, prompted by the Spellings Commission and others, Schneider said it was important "to learn what was happening and what wasn’t, to see how widespread the reforms are, to see what the approach to assessment is." While Schneider said that it has been clear for some time that colleges take assessment seriously, she said that "we wanted to probe the depth and breadth" of what is taking place.
Asked how the Spellings Commission could have devoted so much time to an alleged lack of assessment in higher education, Schneider said that there was "a willful editing out" of information. "The Bush administration did not want to know what was going on. They wanted to argue that radical surgery was needed."
At the same time, Schneider acknowledged that the assessment documented by the survey doesn’t fit into the nationally comparable data sought by the Bush administration. "What’s most interesting is how much is going on at the departmental level," she said. "But because it’s at the departmental level, there couldn’t be one test that would capture everything."
While Schneider said she was generally encouraged by the findings, she said it bothered her that so few colleges feel that their students understand learning outcomes and assessment. That should be a major focus in the years ahead, she said. "Students need to know that there are important goals for their college learning, and our members have a long way to go on that one."
Similarly, she said colleges need to reach out more to elementary and secondary schools, so that the K-12 and higher ed systems collaborate on curricular goals and promote them throughout a student’s education.
AAC&U has for years encouraged colleges to focus on assessment and learning outcomes. Asked if that might make the results of the survey unrepresentative of higher education as a whole, Schneider noted that the group has more than 1,150 members. "It is a big organization and a microcosm of higher education," she said.