Continuing a Culture of Evidence: Student-Level Assessment

By Ross Markle

When ETS published “A Culture of Evidence” almost a decade ago, it was becoming clear that the notion of the “traditional college student” was quickly changing. College students were no longer just young people in their late-teens or early twenties taking courses on a campus, hoping to graduate with a degree in their intended major within four years. Students were increasingly coming from varied backgrounds – both demographically and contextually – and pursuing a variety of paths into post-secondary education.

Many students today switch back and forth between full and part time status, change majors multiple times, obtain a degree via online courses or attend a variety of schools before finishing their degree. With such variant paths into and through higher education, there is a greater need today than ever before to assess individual students rather than institutions to show that students are progressing in their studies.

As students turn to these alternative paths, there is an increasing need to understand individual students rather than whole institutions. In our third report as part of the “Continuing A Culture of Evidence” series published by Wiley, I look at how these changes in higher education represent an opportunity for more student-focus assessment and what that means for institutions, researchers and students.

Previous models of assessment, which focused on comparability and accountability of institutions, compared one institution to a group of similar institutions. These emerging student learning trends pose challenges to the institution-level model of assessment, and forgo several benefits that can be gained by focusing on students as the unit of interest.

Instead of focusing on the institution, student-level assessment has the potential to greatly benefit colleges and universities as they use results more for improvement rather than solely for accountability. For example, student-level assessment can be used to acknowledge the acquisition of skills (e.g., badging or credentialing) within a course, through an academic program, or at varying points in a student’s career. Assessing and acknowledging student progress also increases the students’ awareness of and engagement in assessment, which can address issues of low motivation that often plague institution-level assessment efforts. Often times, institutional data are gathered with little or no stakes to the student, which decreases their motivation and, subsequently, the quality of the data that schools use in their assessment systems.

Another reason to focus on more student-level assessments is that they provide students with better feedback on their performance as they progress through their college career. Rather than simply proclaiming success or failure at the end of a course or degree program, student-level assessment can provide more immediate feedback for students, allowing students to obtain insights as they progress toward a degree. Even in the best circumstances, changes to a course, program or curriculum usually take place more gradually across semesters or years, meaning students who initially participate in the assessment are typically unable to see the improvements, and only future students benefit by receiving instruction informed by the assessment results. If students receive relatively immediate results on their performance, they can identify strengths and weaknesses and find ways to improve more quickly.

Higher education can no longer solely rely on institution-level assessment or aggregated findings. As a greater number of students obtain their post-secondary education in a variety of new ways, it will be critical to understand their unique paths, successes and ultimate outcomes – and assessment will be a key vehicle for gaining that understanding. Ultimately, higher education should view these changes in the way students learn as an opportunity to improve the way they assess and understand student learning. Starting at the student level represents a focus on individual learning rather than just institutional accountability.