The announcement of an accrediting agency’s visit can send your blood pressure into the stratosphere if you are among the faculty members who must write the accreditation report and host the team. To keep your systolic and diastolic numbers in the normal range, keep in mind the following alliterative list of principles to guide you in preparing for the visit.
Procrastination is one of the major downfalls affecting college assessment programs and reports. Visiting teams look for timelines in reviewing when assessment activities took place; a college that began to address assessment issues only four months before a visit will most likely be viewed as “defiant compliant.”
Planning is demonstrated in various ways, including by the presence of an institutionalized assessment team, ongoing professional development, and a consistent vocabulary of assessment terms. Timelines for departmental and collegewide assessment activities and program review cycles also document long-term planning.
Practice of assessment activities shows a commitment to improving and monitoring student learning. Such practice can include faculty piloting of departmental assessment activities, the sharing of findings at least divisionally, and determination of next assessment steps based on outcomes.
Preparation for the visit can best be demonstrated by documentation of regular, frequent, and meaningful assessment committee meetings. The follow-up information flow is just as critical. Evidence should exist of regular presidential briefings as well as collegewide communication. Assessment newsletters, minutes of meetings, and summaries of constituent input are welcome evidence of such efforts.
Presentation of assessment efforts in oral and written form should be honest and realistic. Visitors expect a clear communication of a college’s activities and plans. If the report and the evidence are confusing, team members often wonder what is really going on. Is something being intentionally obscured, or is the college confused, too? One way to avoid giving a bad impression is to have a simple, clear template for the assessment plan and another one for documenting assessment progress. All faculty members should be able to explain the template and its individual components, complete with examples, to a visitor.
Perceptions of members of the college community about the assessment program, plans, and progress are an excellent reflection of assessment efforts. A team could ask faculty, staff, and administrators to rate a college’s assessment program using a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being assessment nirvana). More practiced and knowledgeable faculty members typically will not give a rating higher than 8.5, and they will have significant evidence to support that number. They might identify goals yet to be achieved and people still not on board with assessment. For institutions developing assessment plans, a score of 5 could be viewed as realistic and thus acceptable. It is always better to recognize what one does not know. Constituent perceptions could be solicited before a visit by a survey that includes a rubric for achieving each score and a comment section in which respondents can state what still needs to be done. Such a survey not only documents campus perceptions and understanding, but also demonstrates assessment in action.
Perfection is impossible. Honest, systematic efforts are best. Even mistakes can provide meaningful information to help inform next assessment steps. When things go wrong, discussing the causes and what to do next is a steppingstone to improvement. Claims of perfection will only lead to skepticism.
Productive use of assessment is critical. Manageable plans and activities that faculty know about and use demonstrate a constructive approach. And the ability of faculty members to articulate clearly the way assessment influences institutional planning and budgeting is viewed as significant evidence of closing the loop in the assessment cycle.
Presidents and provosts are critical to successful assessment. They must demonstrate their knowledge of and commitment to assessment. Institutional commitment can be confirmed by attendance among top administrators at professional development meetings and funding of assessment activities. If presidents and provosts encourage assessment with grants, travel funds, and incentives to present and share findings, a visiting team will recognize the institution’s seriousness about assessment.
Although these guidelines do not guarantee a successful visit, following them will put a college on the right track to a culture of assessment. Long-term, systematic, and collegewide assessment activity is the standard by which an institution will be judged.