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January-February 2007

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Assessing Student Learning Responsibly: From History to an Audacious Proposal

Over the past 35 years, the public, as well as state and federal policy makers, have increasingly pressured higher education to create a culture of evidence and, specifically, to account for student learning. While virtually all states report on collegiate learning using proxies (e.g., graduation rates), colleges and universities are now being asked to assess learning directly. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, for example, has called for standardized tests of students’ capacity to think critically, solve problems, and communicate analytically and clearly.

The commission has opened a conversation that we in higher education need to continue—a conversation about what our students should be learning and what the history of measurement tells us about how we should (and shouldn’t) determine whether they have learned. Here I would like to suggest what some of those goals might be, review that history, and end by suggesting how we might approach the task of assessing the full range of collegiate learning. 

Learning Outcomes
There is more to be learned in college than the broad abilities singled out by the Secretary’s commission. The full range of outcomes for college students goes from factual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge and reasoning in a discipline, to thinking that might be applied to a very wide variety of situations, to the development of intelligence. Moreover, “cognitive” outcomes include “soft skills,” in that reasoning is involved in personal relations, moral challenges, and civic engagement. Chart 1 suggests the interrelationships among these kinds of learning.

If the learning outcomes of higher education are narrowly measured, as cost, capacity, and convenience would dictate, we risk narrowing the missions, subject matter taught, and diversity of the American system of higher education. For example, it is unsatisfactory to say that we should not measure soft skills because “the present state of the art in assessing these skills is not adequate for supporting the institution of a nationwide set of standardized measures” (Dwyer, Millett, & Payne, 2006, p. 20). If we do not assess them, these crucial skills will drop from sight as pressures for accountability lead campuses to focus on a more restricted, more easily and less expensively measured subset of learning outputs, such as multiple-choice tests of declarative content knowledge. What we need to do is to learn from the history of assessing learning and take audacious steps to develop and measure the full set of learning outcomes that our nation’s public so highly values.

This demand to establish a culture of evidence has a long lineage, and the future of this culture may depend on how well we understand the past. The key lesson we learn from that history is this: Cultures of evidence do not automatically lead to educational improvement if what counts as evidence does not also count as education or counts as only part of it.

Richard J. Shavelson is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, a professor of psychology, senior fellow in the Stanford Institute for the Environment, and former dean of the School of Education at Stanford University. A former president of the American Educational Research Association, he is completing a book tentatively titled The Quest to Assess Learning and Hold Higher Education Accountable. He gratefully acknowledges the support of the Atlantic Philanthropies for the work reported here.

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