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Assessing Student Learning: A Work in Progress

Assessing Student Learning: A Work in Progress

Richard Ekman and Stephen Pelletier, Change Magazine

December 02, 2009

In recent years, an acrimonious debate has broken out in higher-education circles about institutional accountability and performance. Efforts to alter federal policy in particular have been flashpoints for often heated discourse about the ways that colleges and universities could—and should—demonstrate their effectiveness to skeptical outsiders. Much of the talk has focused on deliberations in Washington, including those of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, since these deliberations have the potential to affect virtually every institution of higher learning across the country.

In quiet counterpoint to the maelstrom over federal policy, though, a more measured approach has been at work on the campuses of a consortium of colleges and universities. Over the past four years, the 33 liberal arts colleges and universities that constitute the Council of Independent Colleges’ Collegiate Learning Assessment Consortium (CIC/CLA Consortium) have been using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to gauge how the college experience helps students develop such “higher-order” cognitive skills as critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and effective writing. Through tests administered to both first-year students and seniors, it has been possible to evaluate the institution’s impact on students’ command of these skills and to associate the gains—or “value added”—with the institutional effects of the collegiate experience.

The Council of Independent Colleges’ Role
The Council of Independent Colleges’ (CIC’s) chief concern in the debates about accountability has been the prospect of a government-controlled testing regimen that would run roughshod over institutional autonomy and individual privacy. However, unlike some organizations that cite these principles when resisting accountability measures, CIC has embraced what it has viewed as the best available nongovernmental approaches to assessing educational effectiveness. In 2001, well before the Spellings Commission called for greater accountability in higher education, CIC became the first major institutional membership association in higher education to urge its members to use the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This appeal by CIC was followed by one to use the CLA.

CIC took this stance for several reasons. First, we believed that anecdotal ways of describing the effectiveness of small colleges were no longer persuasive in an era when empirical evidence has become the standard way of proving a point. Second, we believed that small colleges would, on the whole, compare favorably with other types of four-year institutions in any data-driven approach to measuring institutional effectiveness and student learning. And third, we believed that we could persuade the federal government to drop its consideration of government-imposed testing if we could show that voluntary approaches were working well.

CIC’s focus on the CLA began in 2002, when it was approached by the Council for Aid to Education to assist in identifying smaller private colleges to test the prototype of the CLA. The following year, CIC recruited a larger group of 12 member colleges and universities to use the CLA. In 2005, with generous support from the Teagle Foundation, CIC expanded this initial group of institutions to include the 33 colleges and universities that comprise the current CIC/CLA Consortium, now in the final year of a three-year commitment. In March 2008, again with Teagle Foundation support, the Consortium was expanded from 33 to 47 institutions for another three-year effort.