Assessing Student Achievement in General Education
reviewed by Case Willoughby - December 13, 2007
Title: Assessing Student Achievement in General Education
Author(s): Trudy Banta (Ed.)
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787995738 , Pages: 96, Year: 2007
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This collection serves as an important counterpoint to the controversial 2006 report by the Department of Education A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, in which standardized testing to assess general education is recommended in order to provide for inter-institutional comparison. In contrast, the collective thrust of the articles in this volume underscores that effective measures of student learning are critical, but that local measures are more successful than large-scale standardized testing in promoting student learning. Editor Trudy Bantas introduction provides a very useful overview of the complexity of assessing the moving target of general education and the importance of raising those issues.
After the introduction, the volume includes articles published in the Assessment Update series from as early as 1990 to the present, recounting various initiatives to assess general education. These initiatives range in scale (single institution to nationwide), scope (individual generic skills such as critical thinking to broad educational goals), and success. Given that the 91-page collection includes fifteen different articles, an individual summary of each article is beyond the scope of this review. Instead, this review will focus mostly on the larger themes of the collection, and include aspects of some articles in order to give the reader an understanding of its utility.
The first section of the monograph includes three articles on the use of standardized tests to assess general education: none of which could be qualified as a success. Whether having statewide or nation-wide ambitions, the standardized testing processes fell victim to similar problems. The ambition of creating such tests to allow for comparison between institutions is at odds with a strength of American higher education, namely, its diversity of purpose. Liberal arts, professional programs, the multiple populations that institutions serve, make such sweeping comparisons problematic. Additionally, the results of one standardized test correlated so closely with ACT and SAT scores that it may be a better measure of the abilities students bring with them than of the learning they acquire in college (p. 22).
The second section, Use of locally designed instruments consists of two parts. The first, Assessing individual generic skills, includes articles on various measurement tools and processes and the efforts to use those tools to measure student learning on specific areas such as information literacy, critical thinking, and moral awareness. The second part, Assessment methods applicable across knowledge and skills areas focuses more on methodologies that can serve to assess multiple areas.
Anne G. Scott opens the second section by taking a few steps back from the goal of inter-institutional comparison to discussing how assessment can have intra-institutional benefit. The faculty of the Arizona International Campus of the University of Arizona designed a curriculum with specific educational outcome goals, and created a matrix to determine to what extent they were actually addressing each goal. This has led to faculty using the new information in improving their teaching and aligning course content with curricular goals.
Of particular note in the first part of section two, is Diane Kelly-Rileys discussion of developing critical thinking. When Washington State University (WSU) realized their students were not achieving the desired gains in higher-order thinking, the WSU Critical Thinking Project began. An interdisciplinary team of faculty developed a seven-dimension critical thinking rubric to be used in assessing student skills and revise teaching. Students who participated in courses in which the rubric was used achieved statistically significant greater increases in critical thinking than students who took control courses.
In part two of the second section, Assessment methods applicable across knowledge and skills areas, topics included the use of qualitative methods to capture student learning in capstone courses with interdisciplinary projects, using in-class assessment to promote improvement of courses and departments, and how assessment can promote faculty reflection on curricular goals.
A reader looking for a how to manual on assessing general education will be disappointed; no easy answers are offered. What Bantas volume provides is a complex look at various efforts to examine how general education benefits students and institutions. There are discussions of process, methodologies, and goals that will assist those involved in this work. The reader will come away with a better understanding of the need for clear goals for general education, faculty involvement and buy-in, the importance of local context, and using assessment results to make changes. Some articles provided here offered neat, statistically significant evidence of success, others the harder-to-package but useful and important results from focus groups and student self-reports. Given the nature of this monograph, as a collection of articles that fit a theme but that were not written to be part of a whole, the reviewer misses the lack of a summation at the end, drawing the disparate themes together. Regardless, this is a very useful and provocative entry into the dialogue.