Why We Have a Shortage of Assessment

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3I’m going to make a bit of a leap here and say that across the country, assessment is not happening enough. I’m referring to assessment as a deliberate strategy for measuring student progress toward learning outcomes; a strategy created, referred to, and executed over a period of time. My sense is that many student affairs offices want to assess, but find themselves struggling to make meaningful progress. Why is this?

We are a “people” profession. Most folks in student affairs arrived here because we derive meaning from person to person interactions; we are energized by these conversations. But assessment is a solitary activity. Somewhere in the design of an assessment process you’ll find one person creating a survey or running reports, then compiling and arranging data. The space between “what should we assess?” and “here’s how we’re doing” is awfully lonely. In those periods of time where we don’t have scheduled commitments, we often choose e-mail or other projects because many of us are not naturally drawn to assessment.

Assessment is a subfield of student affairs, it does not exist separately. Thus, someone needs to be interested in student affairs first, then want to do assessment; rather than be drawn to assessment, then student affairs. That we’re a people profession and since assessment often structurally comes from within student affairs, we have a misalignment of needs and workforce skill-set.

Our offices are too small to support a staff member who focuses solely on assessment. Most student affairs consist of only a handful of full-time staff and cannot justify a full time position committed to assessment. Even if an office did have the resources to hire an individual whose primary responsibility is assessment, who would they hire? As I established in the previous point, we don’t have an abundance of interest in such positions within the student affairs workforce.

Assessment has no hard deadline. Come orientation, the students are coming and we will orient them whether we’re ready or not. Assessment doesn’t work that way. It often lives at the periphery of our roles and requires us to “get around to it” before we can make progress.

Maybe, just maybe, the thought that assessment efforts might indicate we’re doing a poor job of educating our students is enough to put this on the back burner. Since assessment is often an internal activity, the results — in some way — indicate the effectiveness of an office or individual. In most situations, assessment shouldn’t be used as a performance review tool, but it’s hard to ignore numbers.

It’s clear that assessment is swimming upstream; and these are only a few of the barriers. How do we promote an environment where more assessment is happening? It’s tough to say. I think we need to talk about it. We need more higher education professionals who are comfortable with this line of thinking. If I’m reading the climate well, it seems the pressure to measure our impact on our students as a means of justifying our existence will only increase.

What barriers have I missed?