Continuing a Culture of Evidence: Why Assessment for Improvement is Important

By Javarro Russell & Ross Markle

Almost a decade ago, Educational Testing Service (ETS) produced a series of reports titled “A Culture of Evidence” that highlighted a number of changes in higher education assessment. Today, colleges and universities continue to face new challenges resulting from societal, technological and scientific influences. To address these changes, ETS has published a new series of reports titled “Continuing a Culture of Evidence” that describe current issues and trends in assessment and how they impact the needs of higher education institutions, students and other stakeholders.

In the first report published by Wiley, we focus on the shift from accountability-based assessment to improvement-based assessment that occurred over the last decade and what it means for faculty, administrators, students and other stakeholders. The report outlines the changes that we believe are needed on the part of institutions, institutional faculty, researchers, the developers of assessments and policymakers to ensure that assessments lead to improvements in teaching and learning—and ultimately to better learning outcomes for students.

Most people assume that college students will develop new knowledge and skills like critical thinking during their college career. However, it can be a challenge for institutions to demonstrate that students are developing these skills. Most institutions turn to assessments for one of two purposes: accountability or improvement. Assessment for the sake of accountability is typical of institutions attempting to relieve administrative pressure from regional or state-level agencies. Meanwhile, institutions seeking to use data to inform learning improvement—either at the course, curriculum, program or institutional level—understand that assessment is about more than gathering data and reporting to stakeholders; rather, assessment is a process—not a box to check.

When conducted to drive student improvement, assessment can encourage greater engagement from faculty and staff, is more informative and is better able to enhance instruction and learning. An improvement-focused assessment paradigm includes stating learning outcomes, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting the results, communicating those results to stakeholders and using stakeholder input to guide decisions and improve student learning. Such a model leads to a more complete assessment process for institutions.

As we discuss in the report, these differences in how assessments are used can have many implications for institutions. To effectively use assessments for improvement, institutions must:

  • find ways to engage faculty and staff in the assessment process;
  • clearly identify goals and interests of the institution and programs;
  • design assessments that allow the institution to gain reliable, valid and trustworthy data to drive action;
  • allocate resources to encourage faculty engagement in the assessment process; and
  • engage students in the assessment process so that they can use the results to improve their education.

If an institution focuses on these key aspects, they can make the most of their assessment efforts. Ultimately, the goal of assessment should be improving teaching and learning, and assessments should provide the evidence needed to guide those improvements.