The educational quality movement has gained a lot of momentum over the past 10 to 15 years. Trusteeship spoke with Terry Rhodes, vice president, office of quality, curriculum, and assessment and executive director of the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), to find out more about this important topic.
What does educational quality mean, and why is it important?
For a long time in higher education, our emphasis has been on trying to advance access to meet both national and regional economic demands and the requirements of having an educated citizenry. Democracy demanded that more and more Americans needed to have the opportunity of a college education. Then, once these new populations were accepted, obviously you wanted them to finish their education, so they had the knowledge and skills you were hoping they would gain—and could be certified. The college completion movement is a natural expansion of the access movement.
Educational quality is a step further: a focus on the learning attributable to a college education. Are students honing useful skills and becoming more capable people by virtue of their college experiences? Alternatively, if earning those degrees doesn’t require much learning, have colleges and universities done their jobs?
How do colleges and universities evaluate educational quality?
Institutions have an array of evidence available to assess, track, and improve educational quality over time (for example, student course evaluations, alumni and employer surveys, and standardized comparative evaluations such as NSSE, CLA, and VSE). Members of the board’s academic affairs committee, or equivalent, will be most familiar with the instruments their institution uses. At AAC&U, we developed the VALUE tool, which is a set of rubrics that offer an alternative to the standardized learning approach. For each of 16 common learning outcomes, we developed guidance on how to judge student learning for the skills and abilities of the first order, second order, etc.
The rubrics were built by faculty members and educational experts from more than 100 institutions. Using any VALUE rubric, colleges and universities can assess student work at the beginning, middle, and end of a series of courses and measure the aggregate student improvement in the selected area. As a new feature, institutions can also participate in our VALUE Institute by uploading samples of student work into a digital repository and, using the VALUE rubrics, having the work scored by the institute's certified faculty scorers. Participating institutions receive data and reports from a nationwide benchmarking database.
How can boards add value in the area of educational quality assurance?
Boards have an underutilized authority and responsibility to say, “The quality of learning is critical for all our students.” It’s fine to give board members statistics, but educational quality assurance is more complex than that. Boards, when they see student work, tend to see an alphabetized list of honors theses or a student performance or an art exhibition. It would be useful if boards asked to see representative, multiple examples of student work for improvement. If boards, as fiduciaries, are to answer for the academic integrity of the institution, they need to find ways to represent more systematically how students use their knowledge. Boards are not instructors, but they need to develop an understanding of what students have to show for their education.