An Assessment Carol

September 18, 2023 Janice A. Grackin, Ph.D.

– With apologies to Charles Dickens –

I often joke that those of us who act as assessment officers are the loneliest people on our campuses. We are the Maytag repairmen of higher education or, at this time of year, perhaps we feel more like Ebenezer Scrooge—lonely. But I am by nature what I call a pragmatic optimist—I believe everything will be okay so long as I have control over it—or, as some might call it, just this side of delusional. So at this festive time of year (I did say apologies to Mr. Dickens!) it seems right to share stories, cheerfully, with colleagues. The three ghosts in this one will seem a little familiar to many, as they have visited us all, and I believe the story does have (will have) a surprisingly happy ending. (I do have an unfortunate tendency to channel Tiny Tim, the eternal model of optimism and good cheer in the face of adversity.)

The first part of the story is about the Ghost of Assessment Past. You may remember the early days of assessment, those halcyon days when we (faculty and administrators alike) were all just learning the language and the concepts, and accountability to higher authorities was not yet part of the package. Everyone (well, maybe not everyone) was excited to discover or invent new approaches to measuring students’ learning. It was an adventure in professional development and we engaged with it as professional educators, with good cheer, or with resignation or, like Bartleby the scrivener, we simply preferred not to and didn’t. (Okay, I extend my apologies to Herman Melville, too.) In any case, the higher authorities seemed content that we were somewhat engaged and beginning to think of assessment more systematically, and they required not much more of us. We were happy in the moment, not concerned about how the evolution of assessment might affect us later on. Assessment officers were, well, assessment officers, collecting data and guiding processes.

The second part of the story is about the Ghost of Assessment Present. (I think you see where I’m going with all this.) In this time and place, the now, we are in the thick of it, trying to meet the accountability demands of higher authorities from Albany (if, like me, your institution is part of the State University of New York system) to Philadelphia (if you are accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education) to Washington, D.C. (Congress and the U.S. Department of Education are equal opportunity authorities and their reach extends across the country). Because yes, assessment is essential to accountability and government and accreditors increasingly concern themselves with both assessment and accountability in all their many forms. Faculty and administrators are learning new language and new concepts (can you say benchmarks and dashboards, I think you can), and learning to use new tools, like Taskstream, to document assessment results, many say only for those higher authorities. But we are also learning that we may not have been quite expert at assessment, and certainly not expert at using the results to improve student learning outcomes. We are re-building assessment, making it better, stronger and more meaningful, making it more useful to help us help students to learn. In the present, things are good and not-so-good and “it is what it is” has become a popular expression of resignation in higher education. And what of assessment officers? Many of us are now assessment-accreditation-accountability officers, those three functions having become inextricably linked in the minds of the higher authorities and educators alike.

As I promised, the last part of the story, about the Ghost of Assessment Yet-to-Come, is the best part, where we may have the happy ending. As in Mr. Dickens’s story about Ebenezer Scrooge, this part is a little frightening as it first unfolds, but in the end it all turns out for the best. Some harken back to past events in education and believe assessment and accountability are just part of a fad that will eventually pass away. I hope not, because education needs assessment and accountability, just as every other professional endeavor does, to make us better, to remind us not to be satisfied with what we’ve always done or to assume what we’re doing can’t be improved upon, when it always can be. It’s scary how much and how fast change is happening and accountability is becoming a large part of all we do. But we don’t need to give in to fear. I believe that assessment and accountability are here to stay, but more than that, I believe we can take control of them and make them work for us. (See, there’s that pragmatic optimism.) Like Ebenezer we, too, can change the future because it’s not immutable. It is in our power to mold assessment and accountability, by taking them and making them our own. A slight shift in perspective and we find ourselves doing the work of student learning assessment not for the higher authorities who may require us to provide them with results for outside accountability, but for accountability to ourselves and for the benefit of our students, to whom we are ever accountable for doing the absolute best we can to help them learn. As Ebenezer learned in that single night, there’s always a chance to change our perspective—we haven’t missed it, there’s still time!

And so I say to all, optimistically and sincerely, have a happy, healthy and empowered new year!

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