Twenty Years of Assessment—Where are We?

“We are not quite where we would like to be on assessment.”

“We just recently had a change in Assessment Directors and we are re-doing our assessment system.”

 Yes, I hear that more times than I care to count.  I’m a frequent peer reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission where nearly half of the comprehensive reviews result in some accreditation follow up on assessment.  I’m a little baffled because we’ve been talking about the need for assessment for over twenty years now.  Why is it taking so long for institutions to catch on?

For the first several years, many people were just hoping it was the latest fad that would fade away.  “After all,” they said, “Why should we be concerned about student learning?  If we present the material, it’s up to the students to learn it.”   Others insisted they knew their students were learning because they could “see it in their eyes.” However, now institutions are realizing this is serious business and failure to develop an accountability system will result in loss of accreditation.  Yet nearly half of all institutions are still failing on assessment.  What is happening?

  1. Assessment directors come and go.  Few people really want the job of nagging faculty on their assessment work. Assessment directors may be out-of-work faculty or the job is piled on top of an already full load.  As soon as a more desirable position opens, they are gone.


  • Many institutions are in their 3rd or 4th iteration of assessment.  Every time a new assessment director starts, the old system is thrown out and a new system begins.  Faculty are left feeling frustrated about the work they began under the old director, only to be overly scrutinized and eliminated by the new director.  They are less and less motivated to comply with a new director and a new system.


  • Assessment work often lacks continuity.  When I review a college and ask to see assessment work, I am often only shown work from the current year or so.  I’m stunned with the number of times institutions cannot produce any assessment work that is over a year old.  It seems everything under the previous assessment director gets lost—if it existed at all.   I find it hard to believe that, with all this hubbub about assessment, there was nothing done for years.


  • Progress on assessment is made in fits and starts.  Institutions tend to start assessment processes, then evaluate and revise the processes.  It takes several iterations to get assessment right.  Frustrations brew because people disagree on what is the “right” way to do it.

Here are some observations I’ve made through my examination of over thirty colleges in my work for the Higher Learning Commission.

  1. Assessment by committee is slow going.  Most institutions, in the spirit of faculty governance, start their assessment work by appointing a committee.  This ensures some sort of buy-in from a variety of academic departments.  However, it can slow down the process because faculty sometimes struggle to see the work from another department’s point of view.  For example, people from the Chemistry Department may not understand the accreditation requirements to which the Nursing Department must respond.
  2. Elaborate assessment plans often fail in implementation.  Many assessment committees cannot get past the planning stages.  Elaborate assessment plans are difficult to fully implement.  When implemented, they are difficult to sustain.  Once the accrediting team leaves, plans are forgotten.
  3. Some faculty fear program prioritization.  As enrollments drop and budgets are cut, senior administrators may be looking for low performing programs that need to be eliminated.  Faculty fear the assessment and program review processes will inform decisions to cut their program.  Assessment and program review calls attention to deficiencies in their programs.  They may prefer to operate “under the radar” to preserve their programs…and their jobs.

But the news is not all bad.  There are some positive moves indicating growth in the assessment movement.   

  1. Assessment plans are becoming simpler and more direct.  They are being implemented and improvements are being made.  Faculty are responding when they see that assessment can result in improved learning outcomes. 
  2. Assessment is becoming a consistent way of life for a growing institution.  Faculty know what is expected of them.  They are being rewarded for their assessment work, resulting in program improvements.
  3. Institutional Effectiveness is becoming the new buzzword. A recent study by the Association for Higher Education Effectiveness (AHEE) found that over 140 institutions now designate a cabinet-level position for institutional effectiveness (Knight & Tweedell, 2016).  This shows the commitment senior leaders are willing to make to data-driven decision-making.  It sends a message to faculty and staff that there will be a connection between assessment, planning and budgeting.

After twenty years of promoting accountability in higher education, where are we?  We are facing new challenges from a public becoming disaffected with under-performing colleges.  There are severe budgeting crises and pressures from governmental agencies to demonstrate effectiveness.  Colleges have expanded the assessment of learning movement into an institution-wide effectiveness movement.  Faculty and administrators know they need to assess their effectiveness but are often at a loss as to how it is done.  A new role has been designated at many colleges:  Director of Institutional Effectiveness.  This role has a wide variety of descriptions and there is lack of clarity on how it is performed.  The Association for Higher Education Effectiveness (AHEE) is assisting institutions in developing Offices of Institutional Effectiveness which impact the strategic planning process.  This new organization promotes a process whereby assessment data is integrated into all facets of the institution, resulting in data-driven decision-making. 

For details see: 

Cynthia Benn Tweedell, Ph.D.,

Assistant Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness

Ohio Christian University