Executive Board Letter re Writing Assessment and Higher Education Accreditation

Dear WPA Colleagues:

As many of you know, in September 2006 the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued its report, A Test of Leadership. Since then, the Education Department has decided to focus attention on three elements included in that report: access, affordability, and accountability. What actions the ED will take based on the recommendations of the Spellings Commission is still unclear. However, the ED’s desire to define “accountability” and link it with clear standards of student learning is shared by many others. It will not go away, nor should it go away.

It’s time for WPAs and writing instructors to take action. While it seems to be early in the game, we have the opportunity to educate the ED and other powerful stakeholders about principles of teaching, learning, and assessment in composition and rhetoric and to show stakeholders how we have been engaged in these assessments to improve teaching and learning for many years. Now is the time we can potentially affect change. The recent regional summits convened by the Education Department indicate that there may be potential for us to have some influence on their recommendations, as well.

We need to make clear the principle, demonstrated by research and proven by experience: effective, valid, and reliable assessments are discipline-based and context specific and are used to improve teaching and learning in specific contexts.

Best practice assessments do the following: 1) focus on specific questions emanating from courses and programs, 2) involve instructors and students from the program in the process of assessment, 3) use student work from the course or program to develop criteria, and 4) feed directly back into improving instruction in the course or program. This process is known as “closing the loop.”

Writing instructors and writing programs have long been engaged in designing, implementing, and acting on best practice assessments to improve teaching and learning in our programs.

In addition to educating colleagues on our campuses and in our communities about these principles, we also need to educate stakeholders off campus, including business leaders and elected officials.

Background

The ED has authority only over accrediting agencies (e.g., Middle States Association, The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Technical and Career Institutions, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and Western Association of Schools and Colleges), who in turn are authorized to accredit post-secondary institutions who receive federal funding. The historical mission of these agencies has been to scrutinize institutional assessments to ensure that they are valid and reliable and that they are being used to evaluate and develop learning and teaching within the institution.

In January, the Department entered into the process of negotiating the rules by which it would sanction accrediting agencies and authorize their work. Among the ED’s proposals was that accrediting agencies, not institutions, set standards for learning, a proposal that the accreditors vehemently rejected. Ultimately, the ED and the accrediting agencies were unable to come to an agreement during this “negotiated rule making” process. In light of this failure, the ED alone will issue recommendations regarding guidelines for this work on July 1, and what will happen afterward is unclear.

In the negotiated rule making process, two issues that have the potential to profoundly affect the work of college (writing) instructors were especially problematic: who sets standards for success, and how data gathered from assessments will be framed and used.

Institutions (and, by extension, programs within institutions) understand their students and their contexts. Additionally, institutions can involve disciplinary experts, like faculty, in designing assessments that are appropriately tailored to the discipline, students, and learning contexts. In this way, institutional assessment can be used as a positive strategy for program design and reform and for the development of teaching and learning. Accrediting agencies maintain, and we agree, that their role is to support the development of assessments that indicate how standards set by the institution are being achieved (not directly set those standards).

Additionally, the Education Department would like for the data generated by institutional assessments to be used for a variety of purposes, including (but not limited to) comparing the effectiveness of one institution to another. This is highly problematic because assessments are context-specific, and tell stories about students in an institution. It is not clear in this proposal who would frame the data, that is, what questions would be asked and how the answers to those questions would be presented. While these proposals are troubling, there may be some possibility for influencing both the eventual shape of the Department’s potential actions and the process through which they are enacted.

As of June 2007, accreditation agencies are maintaining the position that their roles are to oversee assessment, not to set standards. Additionally, The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and other higher education policy groups are soliciting their members to contact their institutions and their state and federal representatives with their concerns. WPA and NCTE are also in dialogue about developing strategies for local-level strategies that programs and institutions can use to design valid, reliable assessments and communicate about the importance of such assessments with those on their campus and in their communities.

Right now, you can take seven actions to help stakeholders understand the point: only effective, valid, and reliable assessments that context-specific and discipline-based can be used to improve student learning.

The WPA Executive Board has created a draft statement on these actions upon which you are welcome to draw (available at wpacouncil.org/node/884); we also welcome your comments on this statement.

1. Familiarize yourself with the Spellings Commission Report and the Education Department's recommendations and proposed changes. We have linked this document and other resources, including stories from Inside Higher Education, to the draft of the WPA Statement on Assessment at http://wpacouncil.org/node/884.

2. If you have an assessment process that you feel represents best practices in valid, reliable, and appropriate writing assessment, provide information about the process on CompFAQ (http://comppile.tamucc.edu/wiki/Assessment/FYProgramAssessment). Based on recent experience, we know that specific stories about successful assessment processes are compelling to a range of audiences. We will draw on your stories for a “best practices” toolkit currently being developed by the WPA-NMA. We have tried to make uploading documents to this site as simple as possible. If you would like assistance of have questions, however, contact Glenn Blalock (blalock@grandecom.net) and he will be happy to assist.

3. Familiarize yourself with the accreditation process and the implications that the Spellings Report might have for that process. A document from the Council of Higher Education Accreditation for this purpose is also linked to the draft WPA Statement on Assessment.

4. Talk to the Director of Assessment on your campus. Learn about the actions that s/he has planned regarding assessment, share with them your best practice assessments and principles from our discipline that outline these statements (e.g., the WPA Outcomes Statement), and get involved with their assessment work if possible. If s/he is not aware of the implications these changes might have for teaching and learning in your discipline, feel free to draw on points from the WPA-NMA Statement on Assessment and the WPA OS to help her/him develop a framework for this understanding. The more that you can ground these points in your local context – your courses and/or your writing program – the more effective they will be.

5. Find out what association accredits your institution (e.g., North Central Association of Colleges and Schools) and learn about its accreditation review practices. Is your campus preparing for a periodic accreditation review sometime within the next few years? If so, how can you anticipate the process and propose appropriate assessment procedures? Does your institution participate in a continuous quality improvement process for its accreditation review? If so, what assessment initiatives can you propose?

6. Educate yourself about your legislative representatives’ positions on education-related issues, and consider helping them understand how valid, reliable, and discipline-specific assessment is central to improving student learning.

7. Write a letter directly to Secretary Spellings expressing your concerns with these actions.

You are welcome to draw on the draft WPA Statement on Assessment (wpacouncil.org/node/884) for your work. We also welcome comments on this document, which we hope to adopt as an official statement following a period of input from members. Please click on the link above to review and comment on this statement.

If we act now and act together, we can make a difference.

Sincerely,

Executive Board

Council of Writing Program Administrators

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