Thursday, August 07, 2008

Can We Assess Learning?

Chad Aldermna at The Quick and Ed linked to a piece by Bernard Fryshman called Do We Assess Learning? Pull Up a Chair... in which Fryshman argues about the assessment of colleges and college learning. After a lengthy and hypothetical series of questions, Fryshman writes:
Come to think of it, we may not be able to answer your question. Because assessment is not a number, assessment is a conversation. Learning outcomes are not numbers. We simply can’t assimilate all the variables — those noted above and so many others — without papering over most of the things that really matter. There are so many permutations, even a statistical approach is not viable. Because each person’s interaction with higher education is unique, the sample size is always one, no matter how large the population.

There are no clear answers — and not because we wouldn’t like to give you an answer, nor is it because we think “you won’t understand.” There is little that can be measured with any degree of certainty. A shoemaker can perhaps be judged by the quality of the shoes he turns out. He and his colleagues start with identical pieces of leather, nails, shoelaces and thread. The products have few enough variations that there can be some comparison between the two.

Not so, colleges and universities. Every individual coming in has so complex a series of characteristics, and emerges after so many different activities and variables, that any comparison or generalization is meaningless. Sometimes, when large enough numbers of students from similar enough backgrounds travel through a narrow program that is relatively unchanging, one can reach some general conclusions. But only on a discipline by discipline basis — anything broader brings to bear so many different variables as to make assigning a numerical value to student learning outcomes an exercise in futility.
First of all, I don't think anyone who insists on some sort of assessment ignores the concept that each student in any school is an individual, with a complex background, different skils, interests and ambitions. Having said that, I don't understand why anyone would insist that it is impossible to assess learning at any level.

I don't understand when and where the term "assessment" came to be equated with "numbers." Assessment is not all about a number and no person with a goal of determining the quality of any institution is going to be satisfied simply with "the numbers." Are the numbers instructive? No doubt. When talking about colleges and high schools, numbers like graduation rates, cumulative GPA, absolute numbers of graduates, type and number of degrees, enrollment, remedial educaiton numbers, etc. All of these numbers matter, but there is more and there we get in the qualitative measurements which Fryshman seems to think cannot be assessed, but is that really the case.

There is and has to be a systematic manner in which qualitative measurements be taken. Fryshman his ilk seem to think that because they can't envision (or don't like the measurement) then it doesn't or can't exist.

This is bollocks, to put it bluntly.

We have to assess whether or not high schools and colleges are providing a valuable service and worthy of the money spent and the education supposedly offered.

No comments: