There’s a Difference Between Gathering Information and Using It

The idea that colleges aren’t effectively measuring what they teach their students has largely taken hold in higher education reform circles. But Inside Higher Ed reports that this isn’t problem—rather, the issue is that colleges don’t do much with this information.

Those findings come from a report being released today by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, a new research organization that is trying to promote better use of assessment tools, and to provide information about what colleges are actually doing. The report is based on survey responses from a national sample of colleges and universities — public, private and for-profit, two year and four year, large and small. Answers were provided by provosts at 1,518 institutions, 53 percent of those surveyed.

The results indicate that — for all the talk by some higher education critics about the lack of assessment in higher education — a lot is going on. Among all institutions, 92 percent are using at least one assessment tool with institutionally valid samples and two-thirds use three or more measures at the same time. Ninety percent use at least one institutional-level tool while also having another approach to program assessment.

There’s always a “but,” however:

The top uses of whatever assessment systems are in place appear to be related to another form of assessment: accreditation. Asked to describe how they use assessment results (using a four-point scale from 1 as “not at all” to 4 as “very much”), only two items topped three 3 (“quite a bit”): institutional self-study for accreditation and program self-study for accreditation.

While such uses as “revising learning goals” and “informing strategic planning” got past 2 (meaning “some” use), issues such as evaluating professors, reconsidering admissions standards, and redefining readiness for upper-level course work were all far behind.

There’s got to be some way to force accredited schools to actually act on the information they’re gathering. If they’re using it merely to check off an item on a list, that defeats the whole purpose.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.