Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Assessment Harassment

[The following essay by me appeared in the Marquette Tribune
in the Fall of 2002.]

One of the realities of higher education in America is that there are simply too many bureaucrats. The problem has been worst (as you might suppose) in state universities, but it has spread to the private sector and has gotten worse over time as bureaucrats build their little empires by hiring more bureaucrats, and coopting faculty who want to be bureaucrats. All these folks really honestly believe that there is so much work for them to do, so many “initiatives” that must be “implemented” and so many ways that new programs can make things better. But their judgment is badly distorted by their bureaucratic interests, and they are wrong distressingly often.

The latest “initiative” that is being “implemented” at Marquette is “outcomes assessment.” The University, and colleges, and departments and individual faculty are expected to prove that students are actually learning something.

The average student will look at this situation and say “wait a minute. I have to take tests. I have to write papers. I have to do projects. The professor grades them. I’m always being assessed around here!” And students are. But this system doesn’t produce enough bureaucratic busywork. Especially, higher level bureaucrats can’t point to any hard evidence that students in the University are actually learning anything. Point out that most students get good grades and they’ll simply talk about grade inflation.

So what is the supposed remedy? Faculty are supposed to specify the “objectives” they expect students to achieve, and then show they are achieving them. That sounds reasonable, but the “objectives” have to be phrased in educationist rhetoric. And they get evaluated by committees and administrators who usually have no training in the discipline whose “objectives” they are evaluating.

A lot of faculty object to this whole idea.

It seems perfectly sensible that, if students get evaluated, professors should too. And they do, via the Student Commentary on Teaching, peer classroom visits, examination of syllabi, and enrollments. Most of this is done by faculty colleagues who know the discipline and know the professors they are evaluating. Marquette students might ask themselves: are most of my professors lazy bums, or are they mostly pretty good? And if a few are subpar, is making them fill out a bunch of forms going to make them better?

Will assessment make any difference?

The best scenario is that the process will be essentially meaningless, and therefore relatively harmless. Departments will find a fairly simple and routine way to comply with the demands and produce the necessary paper. Committees and bureaucrats receiving the paper will judge it to be “satisfactory” and happily announce that assessment has been “successfully implemented.” They can hardly admit it’s meaningless. In a few years, the fad will pass and the whole business will fall between the cracks.

The danger is that the process will be meaningful, and therefore harmful. It can easily consume a lot of time better spent in teaching and research. To give one example that the Core Curriculum Assessment Committee has been touting, one faculty member graded a test that students had taken and awarded them grades in the traditional way. He then regraded in order to produce a tabulation of how many students had met the “objectives” he had specified for the “assessment” process. If the “objectives” he had given to the bureaucrats were really educationally valid, they should have been the basis of grades. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he had one set of objectives – those he considered educationally valid – but then another different one to satisfy “assessment.”

This was just meaningless busywork, but what happens when professors decide that there is no reward in pursuing educational objectives that aren’t listed in some bureaucratic document somewhere? What happens when professors decide, since they are under pressure to report that 85 or 90 percent of students have “achieved” an objective, to drop objectives that only 65 or 70 percent of students might achieve? Or redefine “achievement” so that nobody fails?

Instruction should be driven by intellectual rather than bureaucratic imperatives. The fact that it mostly has been is what has made American higher education – and especially Jesuit higher education – great. But that system is under threat.