Widely Observed Rituals of Compliance: Ted Marchese on the Assessment Movement

In a short editorial written in 1999, Ted Marchese observes:

[T]he assessment movement, following 15 years of imprecation and mandate, has produced widely observed rituals of compliance on campus, but these have had only minor impacts on the aims of the practice—to improve student learning and public understanding of our contributions to it. To say the least, this is a disappointment. (“Assessment Today: And Tomorrow,” Change 31.5, p. 4)

To substantiate this point, he cites a survey (to which over 1300 chief academic officers responded) that found that “all that doing of assessment barely influences academic decision-making or academic performance—of students or programs.”

It’s safe to guess that things have not improved since Marchese wrote this. With few exceptions, the widely observed rituals are more widely observed than ever, but no large-scale progress has been made in improving student learning.

The Glorious Vision of Assessment

Assessment worth doing moves us forward in our efforts to help students learn. Meaningful assessment involves articulating what we hope to accomplish, looking into how well we are accomplishing it, and then adjusting our aims and our efforts accordingly.

Marchese describes meaningful assessment as:

constant, repeated acts of gathering student work and feedback; reflecting on it; trying new, old, or altered approaches, followed by more feedback, reflection, and trial; and so on . . . in the service of smarter teaching and improved learning.

Who could object to this? How could it not work?

What Actually Happens

What usually happens has virtually nothing to do with what is supposed to happen. Marchese pinpoints the crux of the matter, but understates the case, when he writes that:

one of the problems with assessment is that it has been conceived as an external imposition rather than . . . a process each faculty undertakes for its own purposes. (emphases added)

I would say that this is not just “one of the problems” but the primary problem.

Faculty are required to “do assessment.” They are given certain formal parameters to abide by (the assessment must be systematic, it must result in numbers, it must be comparable across divergent contexts, it must use standard rubrics, etc.). But they lack the time, resources, and methodological skills to do assessment in a meaningful way. Most importantly, lacking knowledge of current research and theory in teaching and learning, they don’t really see the potential value of meaningful assessment.

Nonetheless, since most teachers are conscientious about their work, they figure out how to comply with the external requirements without wasting more time or effort than necessary, satisfying the external requirements but missing the entire point. Given these circumstances, it is no surprise that the resulting pseudo-assessments have little or no methodological validity or practical usefulness. They produce little real understanding of how well students are learning and still less actual improvement in teaching practice.

This process is not merely unproductive but rather counterproductive. It wastes time and effort that could be put towards improving teaching and learning and leaves teachers with a bad taste in their mouths for all things assessment- and development-related.

Why Teachers Should Resist “Assessment”

Marchese considers most faculty more or less ambivalent about “assessment.” But faculty actually tend to resist it. As they should.

Of course, there is no question that well-done assessment is good and necessary for improving student learning. Few teachers would disagree with Stanley Katz when he writes that “[w]e ought to be up to the task of figuring out what it is that our students know by the end of four years at college that they did not know at the beginning.” What thoughtful teachers resist is not actual assessment but rather the bureaucracy, reductivism, and so forth that go by the name of “assessment” (including, for instance, the imperative to reduce everything to numbers).

When “assessment” becomes its own caricature, we should all push back. If some teachers fail to distinguish between the living caricature and the intended ideal, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, they can hardly be blamed if what they know is what they see. And if what they see, in Anne Stevens’s words, is nothing more than

courses [. . .] restructured not for pedagogical reasons but merely for ease of assessment, hours of valuable faculty time [. . .] devoted to departmental assessment because of mandates from administrators who must answer the demands of accreditors, and entire programs [. . .] reshaped to align more clearly to a set of university-wide learning outcomes [that faculty don’t view as their “own”].

While Stevens may entirely miss what assessment can and means to be, she grasps quite well what it has become in the lived experience of so many faculty and institutions, something burdensome and counterproductive, something that teachers do and should resist.

What We Need to Do

According to Marchese, meaningful assessment depends on at least two things. First, we must have “a sense of need or shortfall with respect to the student learning associated with current teaching.” Second, we must also have “a corresponding ethic that it is our professional duty constantly to search for better ways of prompting the deeper forms of learning we want.”

But where do this “sense” and “corresponding ethic” come from? The old model is that assessment should lead to improvement in teaching. Starting with “assessment” might look good on paper but turns out to be disastrous in practice. While it may make sense to begin by considering where we are in light of where we want to go, it is clear, with few exceptions, that that approach has not worked.

We need to adopt a new model that begins with teachers deeply developing their pedagogical knowledge and practice, which then leads to and includes the practice of meaningful assessment as one integral part of an ongoing process of improving.

Some advocates of assessment fail to realize that meaningful assessment is an advanced pedagogical practice, one that teachers can only learn to do properly after they have already developed a sufficiently in-depth understanding of what learning is, how it happens, how it doesn’t, and so forth. This in-depth understanding cannot be obtained by, say, borrowing rubrics from neighboring institutions but must rather be earned the hard way, as it were, with teachers learning about learning for themselves through intensive reading, reflection, and experimentation.

Leading educational reform with mandated assessment tends to short-circuit the process of improvement. Leading with pedagogical development lays the groundwork for understanding why meaningful assessment is desirable necessary, what it would look like, and how to do it well. Meaningful assessment (including creative approaches such as active assessment) can only be developed and implemented by those who already have a meaningful understanding and practice of teaching and learning.

The Bottom Line

If schools want to improve, the ostensible aim of assessment, they need better teachers. If they want better teachers, they have to invest heavily and continually in teachers’ long-term development.


5 responses to “Widely Observed Rituals of Compliance: Ted Marchese on the Assessment Movement

  1. Excellent piece. Improvements in delivery of quality asesment and course improvements has presented itself as a knotty puzzle. I am of similar midset regarding the importance and value of quality course design, teacher capacity and assessment as critical activities. I think each of us must ask what am I doing to improve and how is it can I positively impact those around me. Along those lines I am launching a course design institute for our campus in my capacity as the chair of a a student learning and assessment committee. This I hope will fulfill the vision shown by the fine authors quoted, cited and published here.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment and compliment, Roy.

    One of the key aspects of the “puzzle” has to do with figuring out what can be done institutionally or collectively (through training, support, or mandates) and what individuals must do for themselves. It’s bound to be some sort of dialectic.

    I would like to contribute to institutions becoming the kind of places that that encourage, support, and reward individual development and that, thereby, also attract a high proportion of individuals who are already bent on growing and improving continuously.

    I hope that your course design institute goes really well.

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