Purdue University scholar discusses what standardized assessments for institutions may look like, what they should incorporate.

It’s a debate that’s spreading across the country: should colleges and universities have standardized assessments to measure student performance metrics? The Obama administration says yes, while most campus faculty and students say no. What should be done?

According to Fredrik deBoer, a scholar and lecturer at Purdue University, it’s only a matter of time before institutions are forced to assess student performance in a standardized way, so they might as well get ahead of the curve in order to retain control of those assessments.

“Every conversation that’s taking place about higher education today ultimately ends up around assessments,” said Kevin Carey, New America’s education policy program director, during a recent New America panel hosted in Washington, D.C.  “Whenever there’s talk about price, value, outcomes, accreditation, innovation implementation, et cetera, it always comes down to proving student learning somehow. And weirdly enough, there’s very little solid research on student learning at the individual student- and department-level.”

It’s Personal

DeBoer, himself coming from a liberal arts background, told the audience that they may be wondering why he’s researching standardized assessments. But as he related, it’s because the topic hit very close to home.

“When I was getting my doctorate from Purdue, Mitchell Daniels, Purdue’s president and former governor of Indiana, wanted to implement the CLA+ at wide-scale, from the freshman class to seniors. In fact, his slogan was ‘Education at the highest proven value.’ Faculty wondered if this was a way for Daniels to wrest control of learning from them, which is a big issue on campuses today: the de-professionalization of professorship in this country.”

What happened was that students refused to take the test, so Purdue couldn’t fill it’s required sample size, explained deBoer. The university is still going to release the results, but their validity will need work.

“It’s really a matter of assess or be assessed. If faculty say ‘no’ and refuse any kind of assessment, it will happen anyway and then they probably won’t like them. Better to get ahead of the curve and take some control in how the assessments are designed and factored,” he said.

(Next page: Why must there be assessments at all?)

The Case for Standardized Assessments

As it currently stands, noted deBoer, there’s a lack of assessment data outside of news media reports, like U.S. News’, which tend to “perpetuate the elite.”

“Right now, you have universities, like Harvard, who are able to skim off top student performers from high school and actually have no data on undergraduate student performance. So why are they consistently rated as one of the best institutions? That’s like being able to pick anyone you want, picking all the tall kids for your team, then bragging about how your team is taller than everyone else’s. Assessments are really an issue about social justice,” he said.

Instead of arbitrary lists based on non-performance metrics, deBoer suggests the new assessments account for diverse student populations and student learning over time.

He also says that implementing standardized assessments doesn’t have to be about the “false choice” faculty often think they have to make.

“The false choice is thinking that you have to choose between invasive, teach-to-the-test, 24/7 testing or nothing at all. I believe that there can be minimally-invasive assessments, especially since higher ed can use the power of inferential statistics! We can have samples of students take the test and don’t need every student to take the test all the time,” explained deBoer.

Suggestions for Better Assessments

Currently, argues deBoer, many assessments are ad-hoc, lacking in validity and credibility, and aren’t compared to cross-campus metrics. In his recently published brief, he recommends that:

  1. Standardized tests of collegiate learning must be subject to external validation.
  2. Faculty and local administration must be welcomed into the assessment process.
  3. Assessment of college learning should take advantage of the power of inferential statistics.
  4. Standardized assessments and localized disciplinary assessments should be used in concert with student outcomes data to better understand both individual colleges and the system as a whole.
  5. Assessments cannot be no stakes, but neither should they be high stakes.

[Read more about these suggestions in the brief.]

“…in a world in which a college education has such economic and social power, we have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that our students are learning,” writes deBoer in his brief. “What’s more, with so many challenges to traditional universities, particularly in the form of online and for-profit schools, the need to demonstrate our value is greater than ever.”

He concluded, “The controversies and debates about how to undertake this work will continue. But with open dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding, fair and effective assessment of college learning is possible. It’s time to get to work.”

About the Author:

Meris Stansbury

Meris Stansbury is the Editorial Director for both eSchool News and eCampus News, and was formerly the Managing Editor of eCampus News. Before working at eSchool Media, Meris worked as an assistant editor for The World and I, an online curriculum publication. She graduated from Kenyon College in 2006 with a BA in English, and enjoys spending way too much time either reading or cooking.

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