by Richard Frye, Western Washington University
Both the Washington State Legislature and the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges (Western's accrediting agency) require all degree-granting programs to develop a plan for the assessment of student learning outcomes, and to document its use for continual program improvement. That both agencies now focus on the importance of student learning outcomes represents a significant convergence of two major trends in higher education: the assessment movement and the accountability movement.
Assessment has evolved from efforts to improve the quality of educational outcomes by continually improving teaching and learning, while accountability has evolved primarily from the efforts of state legislatures to make higher education more cost-effective. Simply put, assessment has historically been oriented toward internal review for improving student learning, while accountability has historically been associated with external review for proving institutional effectiveness.
Assessment is an iterative process for gathering, interpreting, and applying outcomes data from courses, programs, or entire curricula to improve program effectiveness, particularly as measured by student learning outcomes. Assessment is intricately associated with a "student-centered," or "learner-centered" model of institutional effectiveness, and represents a fundamental shift in how educational institutions define their missions and measure their effectiveness.
Accountability is essentially the same iterative process as assessment except that it is aimed at external reporting and review of educational outcomes. Accountability measures required by agencies like the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board (HEC Board) were originally oriented toward finding measurements of overall institutional efficiency in higher education, such as time-to-degree, graduation efficiency, and student retention. These have gradually given way to the view that the primary "output" of higher education is learning; as a result, accountability measures increasingly focus on student learning as the central measure of program effectiveness.
In the NWASC accreditation site visit report in 1999, Western was specifically directed "to identify and publish expected learning outcomes for each of its degree and certificate programs, and to actively engage faculty in defining learning objectives and developing specific plans to assess and evaluate outcomes at the course and educational program level."
Similarly, the HEC Board now requires each academic degree program, in its periodic review process, to include a formal plan for assessing how well program objectives in general, and student learning objectives in particular, are being met. Each unit must also demonstrate in periodic reviews: 1) how assessment data has been regularly gathered, and 2) how it has been used to improve program effectiveness and student learning. These requirements have been formalized in Western's Assessment Plan, which outlines program assessment responsibilities.
In addition, higher education has increasingly taken on the attributes of a market commodity, and schools increasingly compete for the best students and their tuition dollars. Prospective students and their parents, as well as legislators, are increasingly demanding convincing evidence of institutional effectiveness as part of their decision framework. If they are going to "buy" Western, they want to know what they are getting. Assessment data about student achievements, graduate placement, and alumni and employer satisfaction are an important part of the evidence prospective "customers" want to see about the quality of a Western degree.