Accreditation programs put emphasis on student learning
With accreditation programs placing pressure on colleges and universities across the nation to develop plans for a concrete assessment of student learning, many institutions have expressed concern that an initiative similar to the No Child Left Behind Act will be making its way onto college campuses in the near future. La Salle’s latest assessment, conducted in 2006, indicated they are facing such a pressure.
“It’s the only area they wanted us to look at in more detail,” said Dr. Alice Hoersch, the executive assistant to President Brother Michael McGinniss.
La Salle’s assessment was conducted by The Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Though the organization is voluntary, schools under Middle States’ jurisdiction must be accredited for the school’s students to obtain federal financial aid. And though Middle States is not a government- run agency, it receives some of its directives from the U.S. Department of Education.
Schools are assessed by committees consisting of faculty members from other institutions every 10 years, with smaller assessments carried out every five years. The committees focus their attention on 14 specific categories of criteria, from the definition and purpose of an institution’s mission and goals for its administration structure, availability of various resources and assessments on student learning.
Middle States wants to know that students are graduating with the skills necessary to be competent in their respective career fields. The question that remains is how La Salle can go about assessing such an abstract concept.
“The U.S. Department of Education is pushing all these regional accreditors like Middle States to start to get institutions to develop assessment plans,” Hoersch said. “There are some people who would like to see colleges and universities do assessment like No Child Left Behind, with all these tests.”
The thought of such a directive in the varied and diverse world of higher education is a cause for skepticism among many university faculty.
Dr. Marc Moreau, chair of the philosophy department, is not against assessment, but indicated a guarded attitude.
“I believe in going into classrooms and observing teachers and seeing what they do,” he said. “But I am opposed to the idea that you can tell how good a teacher is by studying what they call ‘learning outcomes.’ In the humanities the outcome is very subtle, and it certainly isn’t learning a lot of facts to reproduce on an exam. It’s helping you to develop and broaden your way of perceiving things. And that is hard to measure; these are human changes.”
Hoersch also questioned the validity of a widespread test.
“Can you imagine as a university student having to take tests like you do in high school?” Hoersch said. “One of the strengths of United States higher education has been the diversity in its types of institutions. It would be very difficult to devise one test that would be one size fits all.”
Others feel that assessment is an inevitable, even positive prospect for institutions of higher learning.
“I think what [Middle States] wants us to do, and to be honest, what parents and students want us to be able to say to people ‘if your child comes to La Salle, here’s what we think happens to them,’” communication professor Dr. Mike Smith, who was co-chair of the Middle States committee during its last review, said. “I think that kind of assessment is something the public asks us for.”
Provost Dr. Richard Nigro also approves of the assessment of student learning. “All universities are being pressed more to know more about what kind of learning goes on, and, frankly, I think it’s a good thing,” he said.
The communication department at La Salle is already assessing its student learning in that all graduating seniors must submit a portfolios of their work for evaluation by the department. According to Smith, the department didn’t create its assessments with Middle States in mind, but rather to help its students collect materials they will be able to use when looking for jobs.
“The portfolios should be a great opportunity for students to showcase their clips,” journalism professor Huntly Collins said. “Every employer in the news media will demand to see a student's clips before making a hiring decision.”
“Portfolios definitely show involvement from freshman year to senior year, and it will hopefully show a lot progress in a student's writing or speaking abilities,” freshman communication major Eric Pettersson added.
However, Ruth Hart, a nurse manager at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, believes that newly graduated hires will always have some level of disorientation when joining the workforce.
“My unit has an extensive orientation, but that’s the way it has been for years since I’ve been a manager,” she said. “The nurses are functional and safe, but stressed for the first year or so.”
Meanwhile, some students aren’t exactly excited by the idea of stricter learning assessments.
“I don't know anybody who would like [assessment tests],” senior chemistry major Santina Spear said. “I would find them a nuisance.”
“I think it’s more difficult to assess learning, even through something like a portfolio because some people are better at doing classroom work, then taking a test,” junior communication major Emily Brennan said.
La Salle’s next periodic review by Middle States will take place 2011. As the next four years progress, students will experience firsthand the changes La Salle will be undergoing to assess student learning. Only time will determine what standards for this type of assessment will be enforced.
“Middle States is not a No Child Left Behind thing,” said Smith. “Yet.”
La Salle University | Advertising | About the Collegian | Staff | Contact Us