While assessment has become embedded deeply into the body of education, when it first appeared I suspected it would be yet another fading fad of the academy. I recall, through the haze of the years, thinking of a modification of the old saying and coming up with “those who can do; those who can’t teach; those who can’t teach assess.” Back in those days, many professors regarded assessment as something of a scam: clever assessment “experts” getting well-paying positions or consulting gigs and then foisting the grunt work onto professors. The wilier (or lazy) professors responded by simply making up assessment data and noted that the effectiveness of their fictional data was identical to that of the real data. That is, not effective at all. I, like many professors, found myself in brave new world of assessment.
I eventually got dragged deep into the system of assessment. At the start, it fell on me to complete the assessment work for Philosophy & Religion. In 2004 I was given an eternal assignment to the General Education Assessment Committee (GEAC) and then made a co-chair. This resulted in me being on all the assessment committees. As such, I now have some experience with assessment.
On the one hand, I do retain much of my early skepticism of assessment. Much of it still seems to be at worst a scam and at best a waste of time. There is clearly a lot of money to be made in this area, money that is bleed away from other areas. Assessment also eats into the time of the faculty, time that could be used for teaching or research. There are also good questions about the effectiveness of assessment—even assessment that is done properly and sincerely.
On the other hand, my reading of Aristotle and experience as a teacher has led me to accept that there is merit in assessment that is properly done. The good and proper purpose of assessment is to evaluate the effectiveness of education in classes and in the institution as a whole. This is entirely reasonable—as Aristotle noted in his Nicomachean Ethics, if one aims to become a morally good person, then one needs an index of progress. In the case of virtue, Aristotle used pain and pleasure as his measure: if you feel increasing pleasure at doing good and increasing pain at doing wrong, then you are making progress. Using this indirect measure (to use an assessment term) enables one to assess their progress (or lack thereof). In the case of education, there must also be assessment. Otherwise one does not know how well they are doing at the task of educating the students.
One mantra among the assessment elite is “grades are not assessment.” While this has been challenged, I heard this being repeated as an article of faith by experts as recently as this month (March, 2018). To be fair, there is some truth to this mantra. One obvious concern is that grades often include factors irrelevant to properly assessing the quality of work. Professors often grant extra credit that is not based on merit and such things as attendance and participation can go into grades. For example, my students can get +5 points added on to a paper grade if they turn the paper in by the +5 bonus deadline. If these grades were blindly used for assessment, they would be off. This, I agree, is a factor than can make some grades less useful or even useless for assessment. However, it is easy enough to adjust for many of these situations. For example, knowing that the +5 bonus papers have a +5 bonus would allow them to be easily assessed using the grades. What I do, of course, is assess the papers using the proper assessment rubrics—to avoid getting another lecture on why grades are not assessment.
Another obvious concern is that professors tend to be inconsistent in their grading. For example, the way I grade a paper is different from that of a colleague so that a paper I grade as an 84 might be graded as a 79 or a 90 by a colleague. Part of this can be due to a professor being a harder or easier grader; part of it can also be due to using different standards. While this is a concern, the same problem can obviously apply to assessment. Different assessors will be harder or easier in their assessment. While having a standard rubric can help offset this, the subjectivity remains whether it is a grade or assessment. Another approach is to have multiple faculty assess the same artifacts. While a good idea, schools are rarely willing to compensate faculty for this extra work—and assessing entire classes of work takes long hours.
There are also the concerns that some faculty are bad at properly grading work and hence their grades are not legitimate assessments. While it is true that some faculty are bad at grading, this is not a problem with grading but a problem with the faculty. Addressing the shortcoming would fix two problems: bad grades and assessment. There is also the fact that people can be just as bad at assessment, especially when people are assigned to assess work outside of their field. For example, an English professor might be asked to assess philosophy papers for critical thinking or an engineering professor might be asked to review biology lab reports for written communication.
In closing, much of assessment is (to be honest) ineffective and a waste of resources. But, it is beloved by many state legislatures and is part of the business model that now rules higher education. As such, it is not a fading fad. The challenge, then, is to turn assessment into something effective and useful—something I have been endeavoring to do.