Massachusetts takes part in multi-state assessment of public colleges

Massachusetts is one of nine states to take part in a multi-state collaborative for qualitatively assessing students’ learning in public higher education institutions, the Department of Higher Education announced on Tuesday.

The program will be managed by the State Higher Education Executive Officials Association and the American Association of Colleges and Universities. It received $1 million of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and will involve faculty from public higher education institutions in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah to gather and assess students’ work according to a Liberal Education and America’s Promise rubric.

“In order to have the best higher education system in the nation, which is what [Commissioner Freeland’s] goal is, we need to know what our students are learning and what they can do,” said Katy Abel, associate commissioner for external affairs at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. “We’ve got to devise a means of assessing their learning. What this is trying to address is developing a way to get a picture of what Massachusetts students are doing compared to students in other states.”

Abel said an assessment like this is vital when paying for a college education puts so many people in debt.

“Because it costs so much to go to college, the question of what’s the value of college is really a huge question, so that’s another reason why both in higher education and in the outside world people are saying we need to know what we’re getting for our money here, what are students learning,” she said. “It’s not a standardized test, we’re going to be assessing what students learn and what they know and can do on the basis of the work that they’ve produced in their classes.”

Julie Carnahan, senior associate at SHEEO, said what sets this program apart from all the other assessments of students is that it is not a standardized test. It is a qualitative examination by professors to see what students are truly learning in class.

“This is to improve student learning across the board by using qualitative methods of assessing students’ work,” she said. “This has never been done before on this scale.”

The process will be very extensive, involving gathering both assignments done by the professors and also by the students. The professors will then assess students’ work from other institutions. Then the faculty will score the assignments based on the LEAP value rubrics.

“That will allow us to look at aggregate data by type of institution,” Carnahan said. “We’ll be able to start to see that within those areas there may be some institutions whose students perform on a much higher level on those rubrics, so we’ll try to figure out what we can learn about that. Faculty will be able to get advice from other faculty.”

Dr. Terrel Rhodes, vice president for the Office of Quality, Curriculum and Assessment at the AAC&U, echoed how this program will provide data on which officials can take action and improve teaching and said he has full faith in the program.

“We believe that the AAC&U VALUE rubric approach is a rich alternative approach that doesn’t cost more money than standardized tests, is as valid and reliable, and engages faculty with information they can use in the classroom — and that students can use to have a fuller understanding of the learning they are expected to demonstrate,” he said.

A number of residents praised the leaders behind this initiative, but also thought that the assessment should include more than classroom curriculum.

“It’s definitely great because standardized tests have been questioned for a long time now,” said Robert Hildreth, 65, of Boston. “However, colleges need to be incorporating knowledge into the curriculum that future employers look for. Often times classroom curriculums don’t include enough of that.”

Sarah Wright, 50, of South Boston said she is doubtful of what these classroom assignments will entail and how exactly they will be able to give a comprehensive look at a students’ knowledge.

“I would really like to know more about what kinds of assignments these students will be completing and what the details of the rubric are,” she said. “I think it will always be difficult to really see how prepared a student is for working in the real world until they’re placed in the real world.”

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