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Spring 2001

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Proving the value of Skidmore?

     Standards. Testing. Accountability. American schools at all levels are feeling the pressure to measure and demonstrate their effectiveness, to assure tax- and tuition-payers that the product is worth the price. Many state universities already live by “performance-based funding,” which links public support directly to quantifiable outcomes like student graduation rates and test scores. And private colleges, caught up in spiraling competition, are having to justify their value in the consumer-oriented marketplace.

     Is “outcomes assessment,” as a Chronicle of Higher Education column once asked, “merely the latest tide of management reform to wash up on the shores of educational institutions?” Or will it become standard in education across the country? Either way, for now Skidmore has decided to embrace it at all levels.

     One key impetus was an expectation by Skidmore’s accreditor, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, that it should be integrating assessment procedures into all its programs by the time of its five-year review in 2001. Thus in the late 1990s the college hired University of Missouri sociologist Frances Hoffmann (former dean of students at Skidmore) for a temporary term as assessment advisor and facilitator.

     Says Hoffmann, assessment in Skidmore’s academic arena means explicitly stating the learning goals of each course and program of study, gathering and analyzing evidence of how well student performance matches those goals, and then improving programs where needed. Hoffmann underscores that Skidmore does not require any one method of assessing student learning; some departments may compile test scores, others may use alumni questionnaires or senior “exit interviews,” and others may judge papers or portfolios.

     As at other colleges, plenty of Skidmore faculty have greeted assessment with skepticism—of the jargon, of the emphasis on formal data, of the extra paperwork. But it seems the majority are willing to give it the old college try.

     “I’m afraid of overkill—Skidmore is doing it in such a big way,” says Mehmet Odekon, chair of the economics department. “But,” he allows, “it could bring new dynamism to our teaching.”

     English department chair Sarah Goodwin remarks, “I know that outcomes assessment in a business is a useful way to put pressure on productivity, but students are not products; nor are the understandings and experiences taught in college.” In evaluating student writing, Goodwin warns, “I’d hate to have students write safer, more boring papers just so we can point to success on a checklist.”

     “Sometimes a student gains more by failure than by success,” argues Reginald Lilly, chair of philosophy and religion. “Education is singular and individual; it isn’t epidemiology.” And he’s worried by “this drive to come up with ‘criteria’ to prove to others that we do what we do.” For Lilly, it’s just so much “criteria-speak.”

     Still, Goodwin says, “There’s plenty to like about assessment: holding focused discussions on what we do and how we can do it better is important and valuable.” And inside her classrooms, Goodwin says, she’s eagerly trying such tactics as stating specific learning goals, engaging students in self-assessment, and giving quizzes earlier in the semester.

     “In health care, the focus has shifted from the credentials and skills of the practitioners to an evaluation of the outcome for the patient. Today we see a parallel shift in higher education,” says management and business professor Mary Correa. “Professors are used to working as individual practitioners, but defining meaningful and measurable outcomes forces them to adopt a broader view.” Her department has named thirteen desired outcomes for its majors and charted which courses aim to contribute to which outcomes. Correa says, “Seeing that chart really got our faculty talking to each other and interested in everyone’s role in the whole program.”

     As for the assessments themselves, the jury is still out. Some programs have completed a first round of questionnaires or other measures, but it’ll take a few more rounds to compile a body of evidence. Lilly objects to the focus on standards and measures: “We shouldn’t accede to the commodification of education; it kills reason and thoughtfulness.” But Correa hopes for robust, reliable results collegewide that could eventually be used to inform curriculum revisions. And Goodwin is willing to assess students on some levels, but what about the intangibles: “I want to know if their lives are richer for their relationship with great literature—what kind of assessment can measure that?”

     Meanwhile, there’s no question about assessment proceeding apace. The only question is, will it deliver on its promise of reliably testing and meaningfully improving the quality of learning at Skidmore? —SR


© 2001 Skidmore College