Many higher education leaders argue that it's impossible -- or at least ill advised -- for a college or university to account for student learning in a way that is fair to its students and that permits a comparison of its teaching/learning effectiveness with that of a peer group institutions with similar missions and student-body profiles. They instead promote forms of learning accountability akin to the "principle" articulated by AAC&U and CHEA in a recent joint report, New Leadership for Student Learning and Accountability. The report advises that "each college and university (and major divisions, schools, and programs within them) should develop ambitious, specific, and clearly stated goals for student learning appropriate to its mission, resources, tradition, student body, and community setting. ... While these educational goals will vary from institution to institution, they should include the enrichment of both individual lives and our democratic society as a whole through the study of science, social science, the humanities, and the arts. By setting clear and ambitious goals, each institution can determine and communicate how it can best contribute to the realization of the potential of all its students."
The AAC&U/CHEA principle is fine as far as it goes, but appears to be closed to the possibility that there are a few common learning domains in which external assessments are possible and desirable in the interest of peer benchmarking and public transparency. At a policy level, the issue is not whether institutions should retain autonomy over their myriad degree offerings and overall operations, but whether there is a limited, inter-institutional academic mission domain in which a common strategy for improving upon and accounting for student learning could be broadly adopted across most institutions. In other words, are there important but limited domains of common academic programming in which institutional autonomy should be voluntarily trumped (within specified limits) by the common good, all in the interest of benchmarkable accountability and student success? Yes, at least in the common domain of general education!
General education is the most obvious target for collectively applying a flexible strategy to improve upon and publicly account for learning outcomes in a way that permits peer comparisons and benefits students. Almost all nonprofit colleges and universities, after all, share a mission priority commitment to the goals of general education and typically proclaim to:
- Instill basic fluencies (communication skills) and critical thinking skills as habits of mind and as the basis for life-long learning and personal and civic fulfillment.
- Demand a pattern of required and elective general education courses, both to cultivate basic fluencies and critical thinking skills directly and also to practice them indirectly in disciplinary courses that form the foundation for further vocational and avocational learning (addressing the arts, humanities, physical/biological sciences, social/behavioral sciences, the professions, and the workplace).
Externally developed and scored assessments of basic fluencies and critical thinking skills are available today. CAAP, CLA, GRE, and MAPP are examples. Most have the additional virtue of not relying solely on multiple-choice responses, instead requiring students to construct and demonstrate some of their work. By voluntarily requiring degree-seeking students at some appropriate point in their paths to degree to complete one of these independent assessments of basic fluencies and critical thinking skills, any institution could:
- Benchmark (publicly) institutional average and median percentile indicators (or other indicators) of basic fluencies and critical thinking skills against average peer-group counterpart indicators selected by the institution from the pool of all other institutions using the same assessment.
- Require, or not, for graduation a "passing" percentile (score) selected at institutional discretion.
- Record the student's percentile score on the student's transcript, at institutional discretion, alongside institutional and/or peer percentile mean and median indicators.
- Share the student's score (percentile) with the student through an authenticated secure mechanism, preferably provided by the external assessment provider. At individual discretion, a student could then situate the score within any supported demographic groupings and selectively share the results with family, employers, and others.
Higher education leaders have asked the public to infer from the obvious complexity/impossibility of measuring and institutionally benchmarking all of the learning goals of all institutions that limited, but important benchmarking would be impossible or ill advised. The line of thought outlined above, while an anathema in traditional academic culture, suggests only that institutions voluntarily take collective action to assess externally and then benchmark the common basic fluencies and critical thinking skills that their curricula are designed to habituate as the foundation for life-long learning. These basic fluencies and critical thinking skills are typically proclaimed to be necessary to informed citizenship -- the basis for the individual pursuit of happiness within the requisite rule of law and the individual and societal pursuit of economic security and competitiveness.
The above line of thought about common external assessments can be pursued further. Higher education has long accommodated, even supported the concept of independently developed and scored exit or qualification exams in the form of licensing/credentialing for entry into the professions and the specialized workforce. Is there a common middle ground between the two extremes of foundational learning (basic fluencies and critical thinking skills) and specialized professional/workforce learning? Yes, again within the construct of general education!
At the heart of general education and professional/workforce education are their common courses – the general education, introductory professional, and/or developmental courses offered in common at almost all U.S. colleges and universities, usually in multiple sections or large lecture halls from syllabi evidencing nearly identical content coverage and learning objectives. Academic leaders and policy makers can readily cite ten or more common general education and professional courses (such as intro psychology and intro accounting). The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) has convincingly pioneered technology-enabled strategies and methodologies for systemically and measurably improving student success in these courses while simultaneously offsetting a substantial percentage of their per-enrollment cost basis. The NCAT reports average per-enrollment expense offsets of almost 40 percent across its first 30 institutional course redesign projects. That average offset translates into potential annual per-student operating expense offsets of up to 10 percent when enough common courses are systemically redesigned. Following the NCAT path forward would eventually cover a considerable expanse of the learning-to-learn experience from secondary-to-postsecondary-to-life-long learning. For example:
- Start with the course catalog and list all courses in descending order of their enrollments (aggregated across all course sections).
- Stop when the list’s accumulating enrollment count first totals at least 40% of all enrollments in a four-year institution or at least 50% in the two-year case.
- Notice that the resulting list features approximately 20-30 courses which, indeed, are taught in common in almost all postsecondary programs across the nation.
- Analyze and prioritize these common courses for their possible impacts on student success. For example, identify courses with negative correlation to retention and graduation.
- Use the technology-enabled strategies pioneered by the NCAT to redesign (with institutional and teacher/professor involvement) a single version of each of the highest priority common courses. The purpose of each such redesign is to improve learning outcomes measurably while simultaneously reducing per-enrollment costs. After piloting and adjusting the new, single version of a common course, replace all of its previous versions and sections with the new course.
- Select, as part of the above process, a group of external assessments to represent core general education objectives keyed to common courses and/or admissions requirements.
- Select these assessments to require as much student-constructed-and-demonstrated work as is practical, in lieu of instruments relying solely on multiple-choice responses. They might be selected, for example, from a representative sample of the College Board's AP exams or from assessment suites provided by other organizations (ACT, ETS, IB).
- Require each student enrolled in a course keyed to an external assessment to complete that assessment, and capture the results in institutional records.
- Substitute, or not, these assessments and scores for the traditional final exam process. That is, instructors could continue to assign letter grades to their students and have the freedom to use or to ignore the results of the independent assessments as they deem appropriate to their grading methodologies.)
- Provide an electronically secure and authenticated record of the external assessment results to each student involved. These nationally recognized independent learning assessment scores or percentile ratings could “follow” students (to represent a substantive slice of their secondary-to-postsecondary general education experience) in their private life-long learning e-portfolios (as portfolio technology and its provisions for security, verifiable authenticity, and access controls improve). Students could share (or not) their private data with employers, family, and others as they see fit over their lifetimes.
- Collaborate on the redesign process outlined above, where applicable, to extend it to a system (or consortium) level and downward into public school districts and state K-12 systems (whenever a common course has a secondary-level counterpart course and assessment).
- System/consortium institutions could independently specify, for each assessed common course, the minimum score or percentile for which credit will be awarded to an entering or transfer student. As an additional courtesy to students, that minimum could be translated into transfer-credit minima for other national instruments assessing approximately the same content -- along the lines of the concordance tables recently announed by ACT and the College Board. This limited transfer-of-credit transparency would alleviate much of today’s clamor for more comprehensive national transfer-of-credit protocols. Common courses, after all, are the courses for which credit transfer arguably should be transparent, though at a level determined and openly published by the individual institutional member of a system or consortium.
- Secondary and postsecondary partners could use the same common assessments and even share common courses, sometimes taught by college instructors to secondary students, and vice versa. The resulting bridge between the two sectors, while not universally traversable, would have some broad and useful scaffolding for correcting any current misalignments between secondary and postsecondary education.
- Secondary and postsecondary institutions would have a small, manageable set of aggregate mean and median scores and percentile ratings to compare to counterpart metrics on a peer basis.
- They could establish common longitudinal learning accountability data elements at the student-record level across a considerable expanse of the secondary-to-postsecondary student experience.
- They could include (or not) a student’s score or percentile rating (and the counterpart internal and peer average metrics) alongside the corresponding common course in the student’s transcript.
- They could accept (transparently) inter-sector and inter-institutional credit transfer, and consider team teaching to increase collective enrollment capacity in the single, redesigned course.
By systemically collaborating on the incorporation of common, external assessments and the redesign of common courses, postsecondary and secondary systems in and across states could improve and account for learning in a way that has national significance from a policy perspective while also improving statewide and national academic productivity and benchmarkable accountability.