Empty assessment

Reversing grade inflation would lower graduation rates, write Matthew J. Franck and Gwen O. Brown of Radford University in a National Association of Scholars forum.

Yes, some students, now gliding along learning little, would rise to the challenge of increased academic rigor. But many would fail. That is the inconvenient outcome that no one on the “assessment” bandwagon wants to contemplate, given that graduation rates persist as a standard measure of an institution’s success.

. . . True believers in assessment never talk about grade inflation. We have both been in consultants’ “workshops” on assessment where the question is asked, why do we have to “assess” student learning in new ways, when that is what we do now, routinely in the classes we teach, when we assign grades. The obvious answer, of course, is: “because we don’t trust the grades you assign to be meaningful.” Heaven forbid that answer, though, for it would open up a discussion no one wants to have.

. . . The unthinking faith in student success means that the advocates of assessment never want to ask students to work harder, learn more, or indeed do anything unpleasant. Instead, the advocates invariably put the onus on faculty to change something or other about what we do as teachers. We should stop playing the “sage on the stage,” and become the “guide on the side.” Or we should assign more group projects, so that students learn more collaborative skills. Or we should provide more constant and more positive feedback to our students, becoming more “accessible” and more “nurturing.”

What surprises me about this advice is that it’s just what K-12 teachers have been told for the last 10 to 20 years. Now it’s being given to college professors, the quintessential sages on the stage. Well, if we’re going to be teaching high school material in college, perhaps the professors will have to learn to emulate high school teachers.

Because it’s so difficult to create an “exit exam” to measure whether graduates have learned enough, many colleges and universities are using the National Survey of Student Engagement , which doesn’t even try to measure what students have learned.

NSSE (called “Nessie” among the cognoscenti), a survey instrument that can be administered in just a partial class period, presumes that “engagement” is a reliable proxy for actual learning, across the board for all students in all disciplines.

But even if NSSE actually does adequately measure the “engagement” of students — itself a dubious proposition — there is no reason to suppose that what it measures is at all helpful in determining whether students learn anything. Some of the questions in the survey ask students about assignments and projects they complete for their classes, or how much time they spend on homework, or whether their classes have “challenged [them] to do [their] best work.” But many of the questions ask students to report on their “social” or “spiritual” growth, or their extracurricular activities, or whether they are satisfied with their academic advising, or whether their teachers were “available, helpful, sympathetic,” or (our favorite) whether they have had “serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than [their] own.”

Academics can claim to be measuring results without actually having to do so.

About Joanne


  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    “Because it’s so difficult to create an “exit exam” to measure whether graduates have learned enough…”
    Is it really so difficult? Or is it just highly inconvenient for all the “pious frauds” in academia? As a biologist, for example, I don’t think it would be all that difficult to construct an “exit exam” measuring whether graduating biology majors have the basic knowledge they ought to have. (Actually we _already_ have exams that do something like that- they’re called the GREs.)

  2. Amen, to Steve’s comment.

    Also, I work in a university that is embracing the NSSE as the new benchmark. It is basically a popularity contest/”have we coddled you enough” standard that is going to further demean rigorous higher education in the U.S.

    It is especially ironic, given higher ed’s recent embracing of “economic development” as a Mission. How the hell becoming a diploma mill for students that have the equivalent of a high school education of a generation ago is going to foster a well-educated, highly competitive workforce is beyond me.

    It seems to me that much of the “game” today is for university administrators to generate PR and resume-building “accomplishments” — screw the kids.

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    As I’ve said before, this ever-growing wave of BS is why I’m happy to be an ex-academic. It makes me sick. It makes me even sicker to think that in a few years I’ll be paying through the nose for my kid to go through this sham.

  4. Several years ago when I was under review for tenure/promotion, I was evaluated on all sorts of measures of student happiness. NO ONE EVER ASKED if I could provide any evidence that my students had actually learned something from me!