Assessment as a Subversive Activity

By Dave Porter

The 2011 volume of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom contained two articles critical of “the relentlessly expanding assessment movement.” Accompanying these provocative essays was a challenge for someone “on the other side of [this] question” to answer these criticisms. The essays by John Champagne and John Powell are packed with “philosophical, political, and pedagogical” concerns about assessment. Powell’s final sentence aptly summarizes his perspective:

Outcomes assessment’s … origins are suspect, its justifications abjure the science we would ordinarily require, it demands enormous efforts for very little payoff, it renounces wisdom, it requires yielding to misunderstandings, and it displaces and distracts us from more urgent tasks, like the teaching and learning it would allegedly help.

Champagne’s conclusion focuses even more ominously on the potentially dire consequences of assessment activities: 

Given the current political climate … I fear that assessment will ultimately provide the corporate university with another alibi for silencing dissent, subjecting faculty members to increasing surveillance, and eroding faculty rights.

Both articles contain a plethora of arguments, anecdotes, and assertions supporting these disturbing conclusions. After reading these essays, many faculty members might conclude that the appropriate response for any sane and conscientious educator would be to withdraw and await the passing of what both authors castigate as being the latest management fad. While I am sympathetic to some of the observations and opinions offered by Powell and Champagne, an explication of “the other side” will require a re-framing of many of the issues they raise. Problems they identify should not be attributed to outcomes assessment itself but to more general problems such as the lack of institutional integrity and the manipulative managerial style of administrators who do not understand the learning process and educational systems sufficiently to implement assessment programs effectively. To use John Powell’s term, “ignoramusness” is not a malady limited to our students; we need to recognize that this is a condition that afflicts faculty and administrators as well. We cannot improve unless we are willing to accept the fact that we are imperfect—and our blots and blemishes are what assessment, when done well, can show us. Used in this way, assessment has power; one might even consider it the ultimate subversive activity. It provides a mechanism through which the authority of the institution might even contribute to the kind of transformation and liberation most valued in the liberal arts tradition.

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