Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Assessment the easy way

Classes are over and grades have been submitted, so why am I sitting in my office tapping on the keyboard for hours on end? The answer, of course, is the A-word: Assessment.

The college is committed to assessment at every level, but this commitment takes various forms. The English Department recently instituted an online portfolio system to assist us in assessing whether the English major is achieving its objectives, and we assess the freshman writing program through in-class writing assignments evaluated according to a common rubric. I don't mind doing either of those types of assessment because our methods produce meaningful results that help us improve as a department and as individual teachers.

When it comes to general education assessment, though, I get a little cynical. Okay, maybe that's an understatement. Everyone who teaches any course that fulfills a general education requirement must assess how well that course achieves an objective--just one objective--from a master list of general education course objectives. We are given total freedom in selecting which objective to assess and how to assess it; as long as we turn in the assessment report to the assessment committee, there's no reward for choosing meaningful methods and no punishment for taking the easy way out. Is it any wonder that some of us choose the easiest method possible?

Here's an example: every student is required to take two courses identified as Writing Intensive. These courses appear in many departments, but the highest concentration of W courses appears in the English department. Now, really meaningful assessment of our Writing Intensive requirement should involve some long-term evidence of improvements to students' writing skills, such as a portfolio system or a timed essay written at the beginning and end of a student's college experience. However, no one is interested in doing this kind of assessment across the curriculum, so assessment is left in the hands of individual professors in W classes. I teach one or two W courses each semester, with 25 to 30 students in each course, and I struggled for a long time to create an assessment system that produced meaningful numbers. Then I had an epiphany: if the committee in charge of assessing general education courses doesn't care about meaningful numbers, why should I toil and sweat to produce them?

So I took another look at the objectives for W courses, and I found one stating that students will "learn to write as a process that follows a series of steps." Perfect: I already require this kind of writing in my W courses. These days all the assessment reports for my W courses look about the same: I set a goal that one hundred percent of students in the course will participate in all stages of a multi-stage writing project, and at the end of the semester I discover that 99 or 100 percent of students in the course have indeed done so. The fact that failure to participate in every step of the writing process will have a dramatic negative impact on the grade assures compliance among all but the most apathetic students.

What does this method of assessment tell me? Nothing much. What does it tell the assessment committee? Only that I am able to fill out an assessment report form and turn it in on time. What use with anyone make of this information? None that I'm aware of. But until the college as a whole adopts a meaningful method to assess writing proficiency across the curriculum, I'll stick to assessment the easy way.

1 comment:

Bardiac said...

Oh, boy! I totally sympathize! So much of assessment is busy work that's really totally meaningless. UGH!