Learning Assessment: A Paramount 21st Century Higher Education Issue - Higher Education
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Learning Assessment: A Paramount 21st Century Higher Education Issue

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In early January, the Lumina Foundation for Education will be releasing its Degree Qualifications Profile—an effort months in the making and preceded by a draft profile earlier this year. As a complement to the foundation’s goal of increasing “the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025,” their forthcoming profile is squarely focused on the process by which institutions of higher education assess student learning outcomes.

The conversation of just how colleges and universities assess the quantity, quality and pace at which undergraduates learn across a wide range of disciplines is certainly not new. What is new, however, is the context within which the current debate over student learning assessment resides. At a time when the nation’s education, workforce, civil rights, and youth advocacy communities are taking new and aggressive efforts to drastically improve postsecondary completion rates, there comes concern over not just the number of students graduating but the educational quality and market value that degrees and credentials confer.

If there is any one academic community that should be paying strict attention to this renewed assessment agenda, it is the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) community. Given the president’s focus on strengthening the American scientific and technological enterprise—and a corresponding need to increase the number of students pursuing and graduating with advanced STEM degrees—there will perhaps be an even stronger level of scrutiny for teaching and learning in these fields.

The good news for STEM is that, as a collective, a number of scientific fields are ahead of the game.  Perhaps more than any set of disciplines, engineering departments are known for their ability to take changes in the field and quickly translate them to undergraduate curriculum, teaching and assessment of learning.

The next step for engineering and other STEM disciplines—indeed all disciplines—is to bring this knowledge and transparency to bear on a national discussion being held by policymakers, institutions of higher learning and the associations that represent them, and the foundations that have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into bettering college-going and degree completion rates. At the heart of this discussion is a not so simple question: Are students learning what they need to know in order to successfully participate in society at large—intellectually, civically and economically?

The education community has been trying to answer this question since the inception of higher education, yet never before has the question been such a powerful and political driver.

Comprehensive assessment initiatives prepared to serve the whole of higher education, and the many disciplines it houses, are many. A prominent international example is what has been known as the Bologna Process; a multi-nation European system that has sought to define educational quality by creating a framework for higher education that meets students’ needs, not institutions’ choices or policies.

Another example is called Tuning—a stakeholder-based process that utilizes students, employers, recent graduates and faculty (the process leaders) to define specific learning outcomes required for a particular discipline. Learning expectations are meant to be clear while still allowing academic autonomy to reign.

Yet another model is appropriately titled, Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE), a set of 15 rubrics developed by groups of faculty convened by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). The VALUE rubrics are aligned with AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes and have been developed as a key set of tools supporting the LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) initiative—AAC&U’s centennial campaign.

Although there is participation by STEM disciplines in these innovative initiatives, a broad commitment by STEM departments remains to be seen. Of course, the key for any national learning outcomes initiative is that it provides tools and a conceptual space for the whole of higher education to the greatest extent possible. As such, it will be critical for STEM faculty, department chairs, and institutional leadership at top STEM institutions to be present for both the benefit of their fields as well as the benefit of other disciplines that require scientific literacy in various forms.

Just as important is the responsibility of the education community writ large—and certainly policymakers and the students and families they represent—to push institutions of higher education to utilize assessment models that truly measure and communicate learning outcomes as defined by academic departments, the institution as a whole, and as required by the American workforce.

So, why bring all of this to bear on “STEM Watch”? Just what is the diversity imperative? It is this: Every major national postsecondary completion campaign has underrepresented minority, low-income, first generation to college, and adult learner populations at the center of its well-articulated plan. They also cite STEM as a disciplinary imperative for the 21st century economy.

To both points: As our nation seeks to educate a body of students that have been historically the most underserved by our very system, our commitment to the quality of education these groups receive must itself make history. This is an argument of economic development as much as it is an argument of equity. Our nation’s economic well-being is riding on the success of these students. And our commitment to the quality of their learning must reflect as such.

Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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