June 29th, 2008

‘Assessmania’ and ‘Bureaupathology’


This is not a rant. As a college administrator, I am fully aware of the importance of assessment, and the bureaucratic efficiencies mandated in higher education in our country today. However, I do think it is important for academic leaders to be able to step back from the fray and the daily demands of administration and think about the philosophical and educational implications of the standards movement in higher education. Most college and university administrators are keenly aware of the standards movement in K-12 public school education, a dominant theme of contemporary education reform that has now moved to the college campus.

This movement has created a significant amount of controversy, with strong proponents on both sides of the issue. Many argue that it is essential for colleges and universities to embrace the standards movement and to verify their educational value (which now comes at what may seem an extraordinary cost to the public) by way of comprehensive and sophisticated assessment systems. In the public school sector, this is often announced to the public by so-called “report cards” for schools, required by the sweeping federal legislation known as No Child Left Behind.

In higher education, we are now finding similar reform movements accompanied by increasing demand for quantitative proof (or at least some evidence) to justify the high cost of a college education. Some argue that this has now become the primary responsibility of accrediting agencies-not only regional accrediting bodies but also the myriad of specialty accreditations for an extensive array of professional and disciplinary curricula. This alphabet soup of accrediting agencies includes such formidable bodies as NASAD (art), NASM (music), NLNAC (nursing), NCATE (education), FIDER (interior design), and AACSB (business), to mention but a few. These agencies have done much in recent years to base accreditation processes and decisions on “outcomes” rather than “inputs.” The major concept here is that a college and its programs should be measured not by the qualifications of its faculty, the claims made in catalogs or on syllabi, or the library and other resources in the institution, but rather by student performance in both qualitative and quantitative measures of achievement.

For institutions of higher learning, the consequence of this paradigm shift has been the creation of a wide range of assessment procedures-many of them emphasizing the quantitative side of the equation-to provide these agencies with the outcome evidence required to show that the accreditation standards have been met. Some argue that such measures are essential to convince a skeptical public that there is value in the educational commodity for which they are paying a premium. Others point out that the accrediting agencies are serving a purpose that they are uniquely qualified to provide and that may well stem the tide of heavy-handed governmental impositions of accountability.


These arguments may indeed be true. Nonetheless, it seems to me appropriate for educational leaders to reflect on a number of questions that follow from this now reigning concept of accountability and accreditation:

  1. Are the premises of the accountability movement in higher education justified? This is to say that there may be reason to question the notion that outcomes should replace inputs, that quantitative score keeping is the best way to determine the value of educational services, that the public is truly skeptical of the utility of investment in a college education, and that government is ready to leap into the breach if accrediting agencies do not save the day. This is also to question the premise that standards established by external agencies-which are granted the authority to close or sanction programs or entire institutions-should guide (or even control) the mission, policy, and curriculum of higher education. Are these premises in fact true and compelling?
  2. Are the requirements for assessment-and the vast bureaucratic mechanisms required to generate the data-worth the cost and effort? This question should be considered within the context of any individual institution of higher learning, but there is reason to contend that the scarce resources of an institution might better serve the mission of the institution in some other activity or enterprise. To answer this question it would be necessary to calculate the cost of personnel, hardware, software, committee structures, report generation, etc., and determine if the cost justifies the commitment and resources allocated. However, as long as accrediting agencies have the power to demand such outcome evidence, institutions may have no alternative. Are there any possible alternatives?
  3. In the long run, does this kind of outcomes-based accountability lead to improvements in educational institutions? Accrediting agencies typically go beyond merely requiring the collection and reporting of data to insist that institutions aggregate, disaggregate, and analyze data and from that process determine specific improvements that should be made to all aspects of the institution’s operation. Such processes must be continuous and a part of assessment reports. Are these requirements leading to the most important and desirable improvements in the institution? For example, would more subjective and qualitative measures result in harder-to-validate but better institutions?


As I mentioned, this is not a rant but rather a plea for institutions to take opportunities for reflection on the accreditation processes that presumably ensure institutional effectiveness. As ingrained as the standards movement has become, with its concomitant requirement for comprehensive assessment systems to measure outcomes, it would nonetheless be a mistake for academic leaders to merely assume that such processes and activities ensure a better institution. What is the most appropriate relationship between internal and external locus of control when it comes to higher education policy decisions? There are points at which assessment can become a mania and bureaucratic processes become pathological. We may simply go through the motions to produce results that bypass the best thought and evaluation required for truly effective education. Some academic leaders are rightly concerned that the demands of “outcomes accountability” may undermine rather than enhance the intellectual joy and creativity of the college classroom, establishing a “tail wagging the dog” approach to education that may not be in the best interest of students or faculty. Let us, then, take time to pause and reflect-and then determine platforms and positions that make the most sense for higher education.

What do you think? Send your comments to partingshot@magnapubs.com

Thomas R. McDaniel is a professor of education, senior vice president, and acting dean of graduate studies at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. Contact him at Tom.McDaniel@Converse.edu.