Faculty Forum: Assessment Metaphors We Live By

By Kristina Deffenbacher

The range of assessment metaphors circulating in higher education reflects the diversity of understandings of assessment. Assessment is a tool for measurement, a process for improvement, and a medium of communication. Its practice at once requires and produces a “culture” of assessment, evidence, accountability, or learning, and students correspondingly figure as participants, objects of study, consumers, or agents of their own learning.

The terms through which we define assessment—for ourselves, our students, or external constituencies— carry and gain considerable cultural weight, as evidenced by the potentially rich but practically damning metaphor, “no child left behind.” This phrase could be seen as invoking the power of assessment to help teachers collectively guide students’ progress toward essential learning goals; instead, the words now raise the specter of high-stakes standardized testing that narrows student learning and punishes educators.

Such negative associations rightly make many faculty members suspicious of learning assessment. To change how assessment is understood, public discourse must be redirected toward a language of common cause that communicates the benefits of assessment and is combined with collaborative practices.

It is unsurprising that spatial metaphors such as “top down” and “bottom up” are used to describe certain assessment structures and practices. But at institutions of higher education, these terms bear particular political significance: resistance to learning assessment is often symptomatic of underlying tensions around issues of governance and faculty autonomy.

In Opening Doors to Faculty Involvement in Assessment, a paper published in 2010 by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), Pat Hutchings observes how language associated with assessment—“accounting, testing, evaluation, measurement, benchmarking, and so forth”—often alienates faculty members from the assessment process, as it “can come to be seen as part of the management culture.” The problem, however, is not merely a matter of semantics; misgivings about process and goals arise when administrators impose an assessment agenda that is not, first and last, about student learning.

Donna Engelmann, who like Hutchings has taught at Alverno College, has argued eloquently in Inside Higher Ed for “assessment from the ground up,” a process that flows from the collaboration of faculty members who are already “doing effectivework in teaching.” It is important, Engelmann notes, to “emphasize that collaboration to improve the teaching and assessing of student learning need not violate academic freedom or faculty autonomy.”

A potential danger of bottom-up metaphors is their suggestion that an institution-wide commitment to assessment—and the mutual trust upon which such a commitment depends—can develop unidirectionally rather than from a crossinstitutional collaboration. Enriching and sustainable learning assessment is best centrally led and coordinated by faculty and staff, who are already charged with students’ learning, and implemented in partnership with administrators, who can align institutional vision and resources with commonly established goals.

Further, as asserted in NILOA’s 2009 report More Than You Think, Less Than We Need, broad faculty and staff involvement in collecting, sharing, and using evidence of student learning requires administrative assurance that “these data are used to improve and not penalize.” Meaningful learning assessment demands structures and practices that everyone involved trusts to be on the level.

Faculty and staff members who inhabit the “collegial” culture and administrators who inhabit the “managerial” culture share a mission of creating a diverse, responsive learning environment in which students can become agents of their own complex, integrated learning. Learning assessment can be a primary means to this common end. It can also make expectations explicit and thereby level the playing field for students, provide faculty members with collective information upon which to base decisions about the curriculum, and provide administrators with meaningful evidence of authentic learning with which to answer demands for accountability.

Kristina Deffenbacher is associate professor of English at Hamline University. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to [email protected] for guidelines. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.