Clio Bluestocking is cranky, again. Why? She has to “get dressed, drive up to the self-proclaimed ‘main campus’ (they aren’t, they just like to think they are) and sit in on one of those hideous Outcomes Assessment meetings run by the OA Borg, a group of True Believers who get paid a lot of money NOT to teach.” Yeah, that’s a loser of a proposition twice-over: 1) a meeting, run by 2) “Outcomes Assessment” fraudsters.
Oh, Historiann! You’re just an old crank too, you might be thinking. (You might be right.) For those of you who remain blissfully ignorant of “Outcomes Assessment,” allow me to explain: academic departments are asked to invent new tests and measures by which to measure their students’ progress, outside of all of those papers and exams we’re assigning to them in our classes to prove that our students are learning something. That’s right, friends! It’s redundant work for everyone, except for the “Outcomes Assessment” administrators who are paid to make $hitwork up for faculty and students who would prefer to be left alone to get on with the business of studying physical anthropology, or engineering, or zoology, or Romantic literature, or something else that has actual interest and value to people other than “Outcomes Assessment” administrators.
Why do I call “Outcomes Assessment” a fraud? Let Clio B. tell the tale:
Meanwhile, at our college, in our department, we all settled on a truce. Do what they ask, generate the data and hand it over with as little disruption to our own teaching as possible. After all, the OA Borg kept telling us, “You are the professionals. You know your subject. We trust you to come up with the most effective assessment instrument. We will accept what you come up with.” If we didn’t comply, then, “THEY will come in and create one for you.”
Someone actually told that to me yesterday. I wanted to tell her, “c’mon! You are far too old to believe that, if we are good little professors, and do exactly what is expected of us, then THEY are going to leave us alone.” I did tell her, “THEY are going to take it over if THEY want to no matter what we do.” She has become assimilated. She honestly believes that she can limit the impact of the system by becoming part of it. Our pity for her prevents us from holding her in contempt.
THEY are actually already taking it over. All of that “we trust you” and “you are the professionals” and “we will accept what you come up with” is just smoke. You see, we came up with ours, and they kept sending it back to us. At first, it was just tweaking the language. “Students will understand the causes of the American Revolution,” had to be “Students will demonstrate an understanding of the causes of the American Revolution.” That sort of thing. Then, their revisions became more detailed. “How does this question show that students are demonstrating the causes of the American Revolution?” they wanted to know.
Ultimately, what they wanted from us was an essay-based exam. Ultimately, we refuse to give it to them.
But, as we know from long experience with stray cats, ex-boyfriends, and telemarketers: if you feed it, it will just keep coming back! If you engage with them, they’ll never let you go!
The OA Borg becomes more and more intrusive with more and more forms and more and more rejection of our own “assessment tools.” They say, “we let you create your own tool because we trust that you know what you are doing.” Then, when we do, they send it back saying “this isn’t good enough.” The process repeats until they are satisfied, which means that they do have requirements for these “instruments,” (please! They are “tests”!) but to keep up the mendacity of “you create the instrument yourselves,” they have to coerce us into figuring out what it is and giving it to them. To keep up the lie that “we aren’t asking for a standardized or common exam” they have to get us to decide that a standardized and common exam is the best option.
Clearly, they do have to coerce our department because we don’t buy it and we have no respect for their process. They want us to give them honest-to-god exams that demonstrate education. We believe that we already do, they just aren’t the same exams approaching the questions of the course in the exact same way. They don’t accept that method because, if their numbers are going to mean anything, they need sameness. To achieve that sameness, they want us to give the same exam.
We rebel against that because we see that as standardized testing with common exams. We see that as not only an infringement on our freedom in the classroom but also the source of our students being untrained and even frightened to think on their own after 12 years of similar standardized testing. We teach in the humanities. Education in the humanities cannot be quantified in the same way as, say, business productivity. Yet, the way that the Borg describes their ideal education, you and I and the professors at Harvard or even the Sorbonne should all be giving the same exam with the same exact rubric so that that THEY can prove that education is happening. In fact, I often wonder if they expect the students to turn in the same exact answers.
This is a sick, cynical exercise. Universities have been around for oh, going on 700 years or so. We educate people, and at this point in history, we’re the institution that decides who gets to be middle-class in this country. That’s a lot of power, a lot of power that politicians and “business leaders” want to get their mitts on and try to exert some control. The way they do this is through “instruments” that they claim will quantify the “value” of what we do.
Clio B. sounds the alarm ringing in the night: “This is, at our college at least, essentially a very obvious creep toward No Child Left Behind at the college level because that worked so well at K-12.” And what has been the dividend of No Child Left Behind, my fellow college and university professors? According to Tenured Radical,
Higher education needs to start paying more attention to what is going on at the secondary level and vigorously fight unnecessary mandates, particularly the testing mandate associated with No Child Left Behind. Right now we in higher ed pretend this has nothing to do with us, but we are wrong. . . . [T]esting is homogenizing education, and that homogeneity is creeping upward: more and more students expect content in a class, as opposed to debate about ideas. Fewer students feel confident that they can write an academic essay without a structured “prompt,” although curiously, at my school, they write blogs, songs, plays, and film scripts with ease and creativity. What else can explain this gap between their unoriginal, often openly craven, papers and the vigor of their creative labors than the fact that they have learned to suppress critical thought in their academic work in order to score well on tests?
I have seen this too, in the past few years: perfectly bright students are utterly paralyzed at the prospect of taking a bunch of primary sources, reading them through, and making an evidence-based argument in a 5-8 page essay. This didn’t use to be the case at my uni. When I came here in 2001, I was impressed that 1) all of my students at Baa Ram U. had the skills they need to succeed in college, and 2) many, if not all, were eager to be exposed to new ideas and to learn through reading and writing, and through experimentation and debate. Many of my students are still like this, but I too have seen a kind of caution and even fear in my students at the prospect of having to complete an assignment that requires creativity or initiative. Is anyone else seeing this, too? What’s the NCLB generation like at your uni?
I’ll let Clio B. have the last word–well, almost the last word:
We [in Clio B.’s department] see a huge difference between feeding numbers to the Borg and education. We test education with our own assignments and exams, which are based on writing and through which we can see if students are improving their thought processes. We feed numbers to the Borg with this “instrument” thing and evaluate our students based on our own thing.
What’s that mantra people use when talking about cleaning up wasteful spending and redundancies in government? Waste, fraud, and abuse? How much is it really worth to give these people the illusion that they’re doing something useful? (Let’s have faculty assess the “Outcomes Assessment” people–we could grade them on the value they bring to our unis!) Hey, I’m a compassionate liberal–I don’t want anyone thrown out on the street in this economy. Let’s give “Assessment Outcomes” people the opportunity to teach 3 or 4 classes a semester at our unis. That’s probably the best way they can contribute to the education of our students–if in fact they care about that at all.