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Assessing Student Competence in Accredited Disciplines: Pioneering Approaches to Assessment in Higher Education

Edited by Catherine A. Palomba and Trudy W. Banta
Stylus Publishing (http://styluspub.com)
293 pages
ISBN: 1-57922-034-7

Reviewed by

Mary J. Allen

CSU Institute for Teaching and Learning

This collection highlights groundbreaking assessment efforts in accredited disciplines. Edited by Catherine Palomba, the director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Institutional Research at Ball State University, and Trudy Banta, the Vice Chancellor for Planning and Institutional Improvement at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the book discusses programs that were among the first to face the new paradigm of outcomes assessment and student-centered teaching and learning. Contributors summarize the history, current state, and projected future of accreditation expectations and campus responses in teacher education, pharmacy, nursing, social work, business, computer science, engineering, and the visual arts. Also included are the editors' introductory chapters on characteristics of quality assessment, a chapter on authentic assessment, and a chapter on assessment in Great Britain.

Common themes repeatedly emerge, such as the need to align curricula with learning objectives, increasing reliance on performance and embedded assessment, and the need to involve faculty in the assessment process. Common concerns include the threats of over-reductionism that trivialize the process, high-stakes testing, and loss of faculty control over their curricula. Although progress was sometimes difficult and challenges remain, contributors concluded that assessment helps faculty tailor curricula, monitor learning, and encourage the development of their students so they can function effectively within their careers. Many professional programs have been particularly effective in involving stakeholders in their assessment efforts, including students, alumni, community professionals, employers of their graduates, and professional peers in national organizations. The book provides numerous illustrations of how this can be done effectively.

Faculty recognize that students require a broad array of higher order skills. For example, nursing educators have identified competences for graduates of associate, bachelor, and graduate programs (see pp. 79 to 81). Their objectives go beyond knowledge of facts to include skills and values required in their professional practice, such as critical thinking, communication, and crisis management skills (see p. 83). Faculty at the Center for Creative Studies expect their art students to be aware "of the necessity for flexibility and the desirability of continued learning and self-actualization" (p. 189), and Business faculty at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) expect graduates to "appreciate the reciprocal interaction between business organizations and their cultural context" and to "possess the ability to cope with uncertainty" (p. 203). Although much progress in identifying and assessing learning objectives has been made, many tasks remain. For example, nursing professionals agree that nurses should have critical thinking skills, but consensus on an operational definition of critical thinking has not yet been achieved. This book highlights work in progress within a variety of professional disciplines, rather than models that have proven long-term effectiveness, and in doing so offers a broad array of ideas that can be adapted and developed within the CSU.

The book presents a realistic view of the complicated process of moving into the assessment paradigm. Agreeing on program objectives, developing an assessment plan, and using results to improve the educational process require considerable effort, even in professional programs that lead to well-defined careers. It's no surprise, then, that CSU campuses are challenged as they assess liberal arts and General Education programs. Many models are described in this book. For example, Pharmacy faculty at the University of Colorado reorganized their entire curriculum to align it with learning objectives (see p. 58); Brigham Young University Computer Science students take a series of objective exams in computer labs and do an independent, complex project using a new programming language to demonstrate generalizability of their skills (see p. 151); and all new faculty at King's College participate in workshops to learn about their campus-wide Embedded Assessment Model (see p. 127).

Accrediting bodies have developed expectations that might be useful throughout the curriculum. For example, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) requires teacher educators to assess students repeatedly in multiple ways, use these data to improve their programs, and demonstrate that their student teachers positively affect the K-12 students in their internship classrooms (see p. 31). NCATE also promotes "assessment for development" (p. 33), the use of assessment results to diagnose and prescribe learning experiences for individual students in their programs. Rather than using assessment and grading as gate-keeping tools, this model uses assessment to help all students master learning objectives. The CSU's use of composition and math placement tests is an example of such efforts. Expanding this model to an entire general education program or curriculum would require the alignment of learning objectives, curricula, grading, and assessment. This would be an enormous challenge that bears consideration.

Palomba's chapter, "Implementing Effective Assessment," is an excellent summary of the assessment process. She defines key concepts, such as performance and authentic assessment and the distinction between direct and indirect assessment; and she explores the limitations of relying on standardized, objective tests. She describes campus needs to support and monitor assessment efforts to assure quality and the need to recognize and reward faculty and programs for their time and accomplishments. She also reminds us that we must assess our own assessment efforts, which requires on-going diligence and flexibility.

Doug Eder's chapter, "Accredited Programs and Authentic Assessment," describes efforts at SIUE to do authentic assessment, which he compares to a cockpit simulator for training and assessing student pilots. Assessment, teaching, and learning are linked, and individual students are provided the learning experiences they need to succeed. SIUI faculty embed authentic assessment within the curriculum and, like the flight simulator, require students to directly demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. Faculty are given support from a "Senior Access Fund," an internal grant program that promotes the mentoring of individual students who do senior projects. Business students analyze case studies, Education students develop portfolios based on their internship experiences in public schools and reflect on the evidence they provide, and Psychology students conduct individual research projects that are presented on campus and at their regional professional convention, with financial support for their travel provided by the Senior Access Fund. SIUE illustrates an important point: quality assessment can be developed, but on-going financial support may be necessary to sustain these programs.

Disciplinary accrediting bodies have provided guidelines for specific programs, and all CSU programs are subject to WASC expectations for the alignment of curricula with learning objectives, the integration of learning objectives into syllabi, and the use of assessment to improve student learning. Banta's chapter, "Assessing Competence in Higher Education," offers a brief history of the evolution of accreditation agencies. Faculty unfamiliar with the role of accreditation in higher education will find this a useful introduction.

Replete with examples of department and school-wide efforts, this book provides a quick introduction to assessment in a wide variety of professional programs. Selected reads would give CSU faculty in such programs an efficient introduction to assessment expectations of their disciplinary accrediting agency and an array of strategies that could be adapted for local use. Palomba and Banta chose their chapter authors carefully, and each provides a succinct, useful review of his/her discipline.

Although selective reading is tempting, the book, as a whole, is an excellent source of ideas for CSU faculty who are involved in assessment in any discipline. Palomba and Banta are seasoned assessment professionals and their chapters point out elements common to effective assessment programs, such as widespread involvement of faculty in designing and interpreting assessment efforts. They also offer advice to accrediting agencies, such as providing general guidelines that require a learner-centered approach; encouraging campuses to develop learning expectations that respond to regional needs; providing well-trained reviewers who understand assessment and who have high, but reasonable expectations; publicly celebrating members' assessment successes; and supporting on-going assessment by encouraging the establishment of an infrastructure that supports sustained efforts. CSU leaders should consider these same suggestions as their campuses institutionalize the assessment paradigm.

I highly recommend this book to all CSU faculty, especially those who teach in professional programs, to administrators who must support assessment efforts, and to campus personnel who support the development of assessment on their campuses. The book is a warehouse of wonderful ideas and examples, and the editors provide a framework for novice and experienced assessors to learn from the experiences of faculty in accredited disciplines.


Posted October 30, 2001

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2001 by Mary J. Allen

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