Why is “assessment” such a buzz word these days in higher education? Faculty members have always assessed student learning, evaluated that learning and considered methods for improving instruction based on their assessments. However, in the past few years, assessment has shifted from an informal process in classrooms and departments to being mandated by accrediting agencies.
In 2003, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (HLC-NCA, UNK’s accrediting body) formalized the importance of assessing student learning for accreditation. Accrediting agencies nationwide are trying to stay ahead of the calls for more accountability in higher education.
For example, the recent “Spellings Report” says that institutions should measure and report student achievement on a “value-added” basis; the report suggests standardized tests for this purpose. By mandating an assessment process and encouraging transparency of the process, accrediting agencies are trying to avoid having a government mandated assessment process that does not take into account the uniqueness of each institution (e.g., No Child Left Behind). Ideally, institutions can respond to calls for accountability by developing assessment strategies that match their mission and demonstrate that they are actively working to understand and improve student learning, then sharing information about what they have learned.
I would be willing to bet that the word “assessment” has been uttered more frequently on the UNK campus during the last four years than in all previous years combined.When the HLC-NCA reaccreditation team visited UNK in 2004, they felt that the campus had “made only limited progress in the assessment of student learning outcomes” since their last visit in 1994. The commission informed UNK that our progress in assessment would be revisited in four more years.
This April 28 and 29, a team will arrive on campus to see where we stand. There have been big changes with respect to assessment, thanks to the commitment of faculty, administration and staff. A 2007 survey of faculty on campus indicated that around 85 percent of our faculty members are involved in assessment planning and data collection, and 75 percent are involved in decision-making based on assessment results.
For the last two years, every department and program has submitted an annual assessment report (In 2004, only 16 departments submitted a report). These reports offer an interesting look at the relative strengths and weaknesses of our academic programs. They also show that faculty are invested in learning more about their students and making improvements in their programs.
The HLC-NCA team felt that the General Studies,Writing Intensive and Cultural Diversity programs did not have a sustainable assessment process in place. Now, thanks to the work of many people on campus, there are assessment processes in place for each of these programs. Course-level data and standardized measures such as the NSSE and CAAP are being used to better understand and improve student learning. The assessment Web site (www.unk.edu/assessment) provides links to all assessment reports and data at UNK, allowing stakeholders (e.g., students, parents and legislators) to see our commitment to improving student learning.
Without question, most faculty members are committing more time and effort to the assessment process than they were four years ago, and for many, their labor has been rewarded with useful information for decision-making. Our assessment process at UNK will continue to evolve; with any luck (and continued thoughtful evaluation), our process will become more efficient, less of a burden for faculty, and more valuable.While the purpose of assessment is to help improve student learning, it is also crucial for accreditation. I believe the HLC-NCA team visiting this month will be pleased with our progress in assessment.