Assessment on the rise—but not in the form of standardized tests

More colleges are measuring outcomes with projects, surveys, and more

Colleges are increasingly measuring intended learning outcomes, but using methods other than standardized tests to do so, according to a new survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Paul Fain reports for Inside Higher Ed.

The survey, conducted by Hart Research, polled chief academic officers at 325 of AAC&U's member institutions, including community colleges and four-year institutions. Among the respondents, 87% said they assess student learning outcomes and 11% said they plan to do so in the future.

The number of institutions assessing student learning outcomes has increased over the last few years, in part because of a push from accreditors, according to Debra Humphreys, AAC&U's SVP for academic planning and public engagement.

Eighty-five percent of institutions reported having a common set of intended learning outcomes for undergraduates in place, up from 78% in 2008. In addition, 66% of respondents said they assess learning outcomes in general education, while 63% assess at both the department level and in general education.

Among the institutions that assess outcomes in general education, only 38% use standardized national tests of general skills, such as critical thinking, a decrease from 49% in 2008.

Institutions may be relying less on standardized tests because they do not provide enough valuable data to help colleges improve their curriculum, according to Humphreys.

Instead, colleges that assess general education outcomes are using methods such as:

  • Faculty-developed rubrics (91%);
  • Capstone projects (78%);
  • Student surveys (64%);
  • Locally developed common assignments (62%); and
  • Locally developed examinations (46%).

The study also found that 42% of respondents' institutions use AAC&U's own rubrics for assessing outcomes such as:

  • Critical thinking;
  • Oral communications;
  • Quantitative literacy; and
  • Written communications.

"The assessment shift from tests that were disconnected by design from students' course of study toward assessment tools that are anchored directly in students' assignments across the curriculum is a huge cultural shift," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of AAC&U.

Is there a need for standardized tests?

Some of AAC&U's members report using both standardized tests and rubrics, and two nonprofit testing organizations that provide general skills assessments say there is still demand for standardized tests.

Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, says the council's CLA+ assessment has had annual increases of 10% to 20% in the number of students who have taken it in the past few years, although growth has slowed down.  According to Benjamin, the CLA+ has measured innovations such as competency-based education and the City University of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs.

David Payne, VP and CEO of Education Testing Service's global education division, says there has been no slowdown in demand for the firm's general education assessments (Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 2/17).


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