Perhaps you have a nagging sense that there is something deeply wrong with assessment. Perhaps you wonder whether others share your dissident views. You have come to the right place. Below are what I think are some of the best critiques of learning outcomes assessment. They come from perspectives ranging from the calm but devastating work of Jerry Muller to the spit-flecked, righteous anger of Laurie Fendrich to the biting satire of Susan Harlan.
Let’s start with Fendrich. As far as I can tell this 2007 article in the Chronicle was the opening salvo in the fight against assessment. It’s Lexington Green, April 19, 1775, if you will.
“Outcomes-assessment practices in higher education are grotesque, unintentional parodies of both social science and “accountability.”
And it just gets better and more vitriolic as it goes. Almost everything that needed to be said about assessment then or now is in this article. Anytime I need to remind myself that I am not insane I reread Fendrich.
Jerry Muller was the History Department Chair at Catholic and in that capacity became interested in how accountability and “metric fixation” affect institutions. “The Costs of Accountability” and the “Tyranny of Metrics” are his main contributions. Both are sober well thought out critiques of accountability culture that look beyond higher education to law enforcement, medicine, and K-12 education.
Muller approaches accountability from a sort of Burkean conservatism to which I am quite sympathetic. But it’s not just the academic right that dislikes the dehumanizing effects of trying to measure everything. There is also a leftist critique. Here from the Radical Teacher is a Marxist take on assessment by Michael Bennett and Jacqueline Brady.
One of the many false premises that assessment depends upon is that prior to the Spellings report and the subsequent development of bureaucratized assessment, there was no serious reflection about teaching going on in the academy. Perhaps the best attack on this idea comes from a historian at Univeristy of North Dakota. It was written in response to an article by Joan Hawthorne who was trying to defend assessment from, well, me.
In this short blog entry from Josh Marshall’s TPM blog, David Schultz argues that assessment involves taking policies that have clearly been disastrous in K-12 and applying them to higher ed. It’s brief and not really fleshed out, but it makes a good point.
As everyone knows, it’s not real assessment unless there is a rubric. So here is Susan Harlan’s delightful “Rubric for the Rubric Concerning Students’ Core Educational Competencies…” In the life imitating art department, try googling “rubric for the rubric.” It takes you not to Harlan’s parody but to dozens of sites that have earnest discussions about rubrics for assessing rubrics. I am not kidding.
Assessment is not a uniquely North American problem. Our colleagues in the UK labor under what may actually be a more intrusive assessment regime than we do. The best critique I know of from the UK comes from the sociologist Frank Furedi. I would be interested to know more about assessment outside the Anglosphere. If any one has suggestions please pass them along.
Want to know what happens to faculty who try to defy their college’s assessment office? Have a look at this.
For humorous accounts from the Chronicle’s Ms. Mentor about the ways that academics engage in our equivalent of law enforcement’s “juking the stats,” read this. Just one example:
Ms. Mentor once met “Iver the Conniver,” a reckless department head who claimed (at a late night cash bar) that he’d found the best way to do assessment. “I just fill in the same numbers every year. No one ever really reads the reports. They just get filed away, like the crates in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s getting us to do the assessments — that’s what makes our overlords salivate.”
By the way, I think “Iver” was onto something here. Assessment really is about compliance. I don’t mean compliance to the accreditors; I mean faculty compliance to the administration.
Work by Bad Assessment affiliated authors:
From Bob Shireman comes the classic “SLO Madness“.
Bob also researched and wrote a major report from the Century Foundation called “The Real Value of What Students Do in College.”
From Erik Gilbert, “Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Who Knows?” and “Why Assessment is a Waste of Time” and “Assessment and Power in the University” and “An Insider’s Take on Assessment” and “Who is Responsible for Student Learning?”.