I’m going to try and break down the coming Spellings Commision report in detail when the official final version is out, but by way of preparation, I’m interested in thinking creatively about the problem of assessment.
I agree that we really don’t think very rigorously, at all levels of higher education, about outcomes. Individual faculty may think a great deal about whether what they’re doing in the classroom “works”, but institutional conversations that make very divergent visions of outcomes mutually transparent are far less common.
Here’s what I’m worried about, though. The more pressure there is to create universal standards for outcomes, the more likely we are to see an invasion of experts peddling various tests, standards, metrics and regimes of documentation. I can only say that almost every bureaucratic system for measuring outcomes I’ve ever dealt with strikes me as nearly valueless. Such systems typically create a lot of work for individuals without creating useful, context-sensitive data that actually helps achieve some clearly defined goal.
Such systems also work to the advantage of small-minded power-hungry people who relish the opportunity to seize petty authorities over others, as well as create incentives for various kinds of data manipulation. Mandatory testing in public K-12 schools has led to all sorts of bad institutional behavior that is the very opposite of what such testing was meant to encourage. Another example: most academics have heard stories about various forms of data manipulation used to skew US News and World Report rankings.
So here’s what I’m thinking about: how could higher education be more sensitive to the question of outcomes in a way that would still be satisfyingly qualitative? How could you get a higher confidence about the difference between what your students know at the start of a semester and at the end of the semester, especially if you believe that part of what you’re teaching is “critical thought”? What are the instruments being used now that could be refined, improved or extended?