College to develop open-source assessment tool

$1.9M grant from U.S. Department of Education will be used to develop tool to help college target resources, services for students.

assessment-toolExcelsior College has received a $1.9 million grant that will  be used to develop the Diagnostic Assessment and Achievement of College Skills (DAACS), an open-source assessment tool, which will allow colleges and universities to target resources and services to students based on their academic and non-academic skills.

The grant represents the largest award in the college’s history and comes from the U.S. Department of Education, Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, First in the World (FITW) Program.

“DAACS will evaluate the skills of incoming students to inform them and the institution of their readiness for college-level work,” said Excelsior College’s Jason Bryer, PhD, project director. “With these data, DAACS will substantially increase the efficacy of our predictive models, allowing Excelsior – and eventually all institutions – to more accurately identify at-risk students and provide targeted outreach.”

DAACS is part of a strategic push by Excelsior to increase student success, retention, and persistence. DAACS offers a research-based alternative that does not derail a student’s path to degree completion. It will be open-access, offer students formative feedback on each of their assessed weaknesses, provide information for relearning content, and direct them to specific support services. The inclusion of both academic (i.e. reading, writing and math) and non-academic (i.e. academic self-regulation, grit, math anxiety, and test anxiety) assessments provides institutions and students a more complete picture of their abilities. Moreover, this allows for targeted interventions based upon each individual student’s needs.

Detailed data will inform the college’s academic advisement and be integrated into the predictive analytics within Excelsior’s newly launched Student Success Center. In addition, Excelsior will use the funding to add a new reading comprehension section to its award-winning Online Writing Lab and enhance the college’s Student Success Guide, a student readiness website offering learning resources, self-assessment tools, and study strategies.

Patricia Croop, director of grants and research at Excelsior, says the tool will most benefit underserved students arriving at college from poorly performing high schools and the open access higher educational institutions which serve them, including community colleges. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce anticipates that by 2020, 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education, making it vitally necessary to increase completion rates at community colleges and distance learning institutions catering to post-traditional students.

Historically, institutions have relied on high-stakes placement exams, which provide just two possible outcomes: students are either ready or not ready to begin credit-bearing coursework. As a result of this type of limited assessment, approximately 60 percent of students in open access institutions are deemed unprepared for college-level work and are then redirected into non-credit remediation courses, costing taxpayers, institutions, students, and benefactors approximately $4 billion a year.

Excelsior will partner with Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and the University at Albany on the development of DAACS. Upon the tool’s completion, Excelsior and Western Governors University will pilot studies on its effectiveness.

“Excelsior is regarded as an innovator precisely because of projects like DAACS, but these types of innovations are rarely possible without programs like First in the World,” said Excelsior College President John Ebersole. “We want to thank Representative Paul Tonko, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer for supporting this initiative.”

“The University at Albany is excited to join this multi-institution team to develop systems that better capitalize on the academic and non-academic strengths of entering college students,” said Dr. Robert Bangert-Drowns, dean, School of Education, The University at Albany, State University of New York. “The project will not just offer a new technology, but a more sophisticated way of thinking about aspiring college students and their potential for successful learning.”

“Because of its focus on generating actionable feedback and its direct link to effective support services and resources, DAACS has the potential to empower and enable students to become more purposeful and strategic learners,” said Timothy Cleary, associate professor, Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. “This project is particularly exciting because it can positively influence the ways in which students – as well as faculty – respond to the inevitable challenges and struggles that so many students experience during college.”

“We are excited to partner with Excelsior to test DAACS because we believe it could have significant benefits to our students and faculty,” said Jason Levin, vice president of Institutional Research at Western Governors University. “DAACS is an example of research that is focused on student success, which is the primary objective of Western Governors University.”

Out of more than 300 institutions, which submitted second round applications to FITW, Excelsior College is one of just 18 colleges selected to receive an award. As part of the grant, Excelsior will be required to institute evaluation plans that meet What Works Clearinghouse standards. At the end of the two-year period of development and piloting, DAACS will be freely available for use by any individual or institution.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

Laura Ascione