Some Thoughts on the Future of College Assessment

By Alberto Acereda

Erik deBoer’s report, “Standardized Assessments of College Learning: Past and Future,” reverberates the discussions of challenges facing U.S. higher education. I was so appreciative to be invited to New America Foundation’s “The Future of College Assessment” panel to discuss Erik’s work and Educational Testing Service’s view of the future of student learning assessment in higher education.

However, I got stranded in Baltimore due to an unfortunate event which stopped all train traffic to Washington, D.C., and I was unable to participate. Luckily I had a strong enough signal to watch the live stream of the event via my phone, and I’d like to take an opportunity to add my comments to the discussion that ensued.

The growth of higher education institutions’ investment in resources to evaluate student learning is evidence of a shift on campuses from assessment to meet accreditation requirements to assessment to improve educational offerings to students. As a former tenured professor, I understand the importance of having strong faculty involvement to sustain and have a fruitful assessment program.

I couldn’t agree more with deBoer’s position that faculty input in the assessment process is paramount to maintaining the academic freedom and integrity of their individual institutions. The purpose of assessment activities needs to be clearly stated and that it’s about measuring how students are learning, not an assault on how professors run their classrooms.

There’s a healthy skepticism surrounding the use of standardized tests to measure general and disciplinary learning on higher education campuses. When assessments are poorly designed, they fail to measure what the institution needs to measure. The validity of intended uses of scores become questionable when an assessment is used for other than stated purposes. Assessments are tools designed to yield specific data. You must have the right tool and use it correctly to build confidence in the assessment process.

Information gaps exist among education communities in how assessments are developed and administered correctly. Obtaining representative samples, finding the right mix of institution- and commercially-developed assessments to meet an institution’s unique needs, or having enough experts in psychometrics, these are just some of the parts of running a useful assessment program. This is why faculty and assessment administrators on campuses must have adequate training in affective assessment processes, something that’s becoming more readily available to institutions.

The panel also discussed transparency from assessment developers in how any particular test is created. Speaking for Educational Testing Service, our research in higher education assessment involves direct participation from educators, from operational definitions to prototyping, to standard setting and defining student performance levels. Tests aren’t created in a vacuum, but are built upon recognized constructs by national and international academic governing bodies. As a research- and mission-based organization, all of our research is made readily available to the public via our website.

In short, assessing college learning needs to be more central to the conversation about quality in higher education and panels like the one organized by the New America Foundation help to do exactly that. The ultimate goal for all of us involved in assessing education is to help students by providing information to colleges and universities so they can enhance and improve teaching and learning.

Alberto Acereda is the Senior Director of Business Development at ETS Global Education