Assessment Impossible-Who's the Exec
"If your family loves your food, you're going to be a great chef?" Such a lack of knowledge of an area of expertise resembles the odd expectations of Ph.D.'s which might be captured in a statement like "Once you get your Ph.D. you know how to teach, how to manage, how to run a kitchen and even how to design an assessment program."
Right now, our hodgepodge of backgrounds almost lends credence to my fantasy quote about Ph.D.'s. I've known superb assessment professionals with backgrounds in business, English, mathematics, cognitive or organizational psychology, pharmacology, and history. In many cases there has been a second area of expertise. I have worked with educators, Rabbis, designers of various sorts and nurses who have made fascinating contributions to the assessment of learning in their fields. Are we ready and should we begin to define the preparation of assessment professionals?
From the point of view of AALHE, defining the profession would be premature. The pools are too narrow both of discussants and of pioneering programs for preparing assessment professionals. But a few suggestions might advance the sort of AALHE dialog, which would stimulate the creation of programs for producing assessment profesionals. Three criteria are proposed below.
My first criterion for an assessment professional would be a commitment and passion for diverse learning. It's obvious that the stereotyped English graduate who dreads learning mathematics or the physicist who dreads reading literature are not good candidates for assessment work. Assessment professionals need the tools for learning advances in methodology that come from a wide variety of disciplines.
Because of the prevalence of resistance to mathematics learning, that topic is a special case of "commitment and passion for diverse learning." Today assessment professionals need to have a practical knowledge of statistics. However, assessment people who limit their their mathematical learning to statistics are likely to be severely handicapped. In the next decade or two, the explosive growth in applications of network theory is likely to continue and to transform practical work in assessment. Nonlinear dynamics and set theory are two other areas that have deeply affected my own work and likely to be highly useful to others in assessment. Similarly, assessment professionals need to have strong skills at learning computer applications related to collecting, analyzing and disseminating information.
A second criterion may be less obvious, but equally recognizable to a commitment to diverse learning. Assessment professionals need also to span the applied-theoretical gap. The science or humanities researchers who resist learning public policy, strategic planning or educational best practices would be as unsuccessful as the management or education specialists who resist learning the methodologies of history, science, philosophy or design.
My third criterion concerns differentiating assessment from other disciplines. A program that prepares assessment professionals is different, for example, from "Higher Education Leadership." Perhaps before the accountability push in U.S. higher education that emerged near the end of the last century, the lines between Institutional Research, Higher Education Leadership and Assessment could be blurred. No more! Skills useful in understanding the needs and requirements of all higher education stakeholders may be as important for leadership as for assessment. But skills in engaging faculty in program assessment, helping them design assessments that have the potential to lead to program improvements, analyzing the results accurately, interpreting them meaningfully, and writing about them clearly are much more the provenance of assessment. Assessment will be diminished to the extent that it is seen as a stepping stone to some other more glamorous career. The assessment of programs that facilitate learning and lead to institutional improvement is complex enough to demand its own discipline. The future leaders of the assessment profession will be those who have found its glamour.
There are a host of ways that programs might produce good assessment professionals. The common ingredient, however, will be to create effective assessment executives of the future, each with a commitment and passion for diverse learning, a knowledge of how to span the applied-theoretical gap, and a career goal focused on the assessment of programs designed to facilitate learning.