Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Why Assessment of General Education Competencies is Entirely Different from Grading

I have been aware for many years that the college where I teach has been doing a poor job with assessing general education. At times over the years I've tried talking to the people in positions of responsibility about the inadequacies of our assessment, but no one has listened. Finally I gave up and just made sure that I did things the right way even if no one else did. 

Ultimately the day of reckoning - re-accreditation - has arrived, and despite our having been slapped on the hand for our inadequate general education assessment and asked to address those deficiencies, those in decision-making positions are still not listening to me. Or rather they heard me and said you're right, but we'll deal with that sometime in the future.  Right now we're just going to do a whole lot more of the wrong thing and overwhelm them with reams of bad assessment data - done up in a pretty new chart that someone at the top thinks makes everything okay. Of course they didn't actually say that, but that seems to be the course we are taking. 

So I've been charged with collating and synthesizing these reams of bad data into some coherent whole (not really possible but I'm trying), and that is what I'm spending my "vacation" doing. As I review all of the assessment reports of all of our faculty, I am aghast at how bad things actually are - far worse than I had imagined.  I would like to be able to put all these people in a room somewhere and explain some things to them, but that is never going to happen.  For one thing, by the time the chickens come home fully to rest and the awfulness of our assessment is fully understood, I will have retired and it will be "not my circus, not my monkeys." 

So instead I'm going to deliver part of my "lecture" here, because I've got to let it out somewhere. Maybe somebody somewhere will benefit from my little rant. 

My college, as well as all other colleges in our system and most colleges in our state, has adopted a general education plan the "Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) Initiative" developed by hundreds of college faculty through the auspices of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU). The LEAP initiative includes 12 essential learning outcomes for a liberal education, including communication skills, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, critical thinking, life long learning, teamwork and problem solving, and several others (https://www.aacu.org/leap/essential-learning-outcomes). To assist colleges and faculty determine whether or not they are achieving these general educational goals, the AACU developed Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education rubrics or VALUE rubrics (Source: https://www.aacu.org/value).  Having spent many years now reading the literature around the LEAP initiative and the VALUE rubrics, it is clear that the students' entire educational career should contribute to the development of these essential skills, and that proficiency in them is something that accumulates over the student entire academic career.  This means that most first semester freshmen taking their first college level courses would not be expected to be fully proficient at most of the learning outcomes, but that one would expect the majority of last semester senior students to be proficient.  

The biggest mistake that most of our faculty have made is to assume that assessment is simply an extension of grading. Having made that assumption, the majority of my colleagues then assume that they can simply use the grade from some test, paper, exercise, project or even the course as a whole, as THE measure of assessment - for a whole host of different general education areas from "inquiry and analysis," "critical and creative thinking," to "life-long learning skills," and "integrative and applied learning." As a result I am seeing faculty with first semester freshman in the first English writing course reporting that because 95% of their students got a C+ or better therefore 95% of their students are fully proficient in written communication. If that is so, then why on earth do we then require them to take a second semester of writing? Because one semester of college writing does not make most people proficient at written communication. Proficiency in writing takes lots of practice in writing, and writing different types of content (history essays, sociology journals, science term papers, etc.). Assessment is not the same as grading.

A grade is a measurement of the student's performance in a particular course. How well did the student complete all the requirements of that course? That's what a grade indicates. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the difference between grading and assessment is to use some thing that most people can understand: studying languages.  A person who wishes to study French will begin with an introductory French course. That individual may study very hard in introductory French and do all of the required work at a high level of skill - for that course - and be rewarded for their efforts with an A.  That's grading.  But then we ask, is that person who has completed a one semester course in French with an A now proficient in the speaking, writing and communicating in French. Of course not. That is assessment. Assessment is about a larger life skill that accrues over time and practice. Moreover, it is entirely possible for a person to take four semesters of French, and get an A in every single class, and still not be particularly proficient in speaking and writing French. However, if that is so, then there's probably good reason to go back and review how the courses were taught since the ultimate goal of the courses is to develop proficiency. Nonetheless we would still not expect proficiency to be the outcome of the first, or even second course, but rather some mile stone measure along the way. 

In most courses at a community college (the first two years of college), such as where I teach, we should not be looking for proficiency in most courses, but rather from evidence that students have started along the way to a particular skill or ability - for milestones.  While the development of such skills and abilities should be part of grading, they are often not the most important element in the grade even on a single assignment or activity. So grades often are poor indicators of the development of general education skills.  Assessment requires a separate set of judgments about where a student lies in the development of a body of knowledge or a set of skills.   That separate assessment could be included within the grading criteria as a percentage of a score or grade, but is unlikely to encompass all of the things that go into the grade. 

A good example is developing the skills of life long learning. Reading the AACU's material and VALUE rubric on life long learning, some years ago, I realized that a project that I always have my Social Problems students do was something that could - if tweaked just a little - contribute to developing life long learning skills. The actual grade that I give students for this project (identifying a social problem specific to their home community, and following through with research, contact with others addressing the problem, and thinking about solutions for their community) depends on many different factors, such as how well they have learnt and used the terminology of sociology, how well they write, and only a small percentage of the grade is related to life-long learning skills.  A student could get an A (low A) on the project without having exhibited higher levels of life-long learning skills.  The Life Long Learning Value rubric has five dimensions. One of those dimensions is initiative, and the lowest level (scored as "1") on the rubric for initiative is "completes required work." The second level (scored "2") is "Completes required work and identifies opportunities to expand knowledge, skills, and abilities;" and the third level (scored "3") is "Completes required work, identifies and pursues opportunities to expand knowledge, skills, and abilities." 

I set up the project in such a way to create a climate where students are encouraged to identify and pursue opportunities to expand knowledge.  I use extensive feedback in the early stages of the project, making many suggestions to students about additional information sources, and avenues they might explore. Students who do so rank high on the Life-Long Skills rubric that is used for assessment. But students who do not, have still "completed required work," which is the primary basis for the grade on the project. 

Faculty often bemoan the students for whom the grade is the end-all and be-all of college. But sometimes we get blinded by same type of narrow minded thinking - grades are not always the best measure of learning.