A few months back, I wrote about how my college was going through the NCATE accreditation process. The outcome of that long event was a report about how we are doing. One area in which we were “dinged” was in our assessments of our graduate programs. As director of one of our biggest graduate programs, this report finding means that I am now under the gun to create quantitative assessments to determine the effect our Master’s program has on its students (are we teaching them anything, are their dispositions and behaviors changing toward sought-after ends as a result of our program, etc?).
While such info can certainly be useful in some ways, I cringe at how there is an assumption underlying the whole process that the professor of the classes and faculty of the department can no longer be the judges of whether or not we are doing what we should be doing. I know, I know; some people assume that without accountability people will slack, but I personally don’t slack when someone isn’t watching over me! I have very high expectations for myself and so I bristle whenever people assume that I don’t.
So, now I am having to sit down with other folks who teach our graduate classes and come up with some easily quantifiable assessments that will give us “hard data” on whether we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. A major complication of this for me is the nature of a number of our classes. These classes, such as multicultural education and foundations of education, are not your conventional, transmission-model classes. We are not overly concerned with whether or not our students walk out with a “bunch ‘o facts;” instead, we want to know if our students have engaged with the material in a serious and critical manner …have they thought deeply about what they have read and discussed in class? Have they shown fledgling steps toward being informed advocates of sound educational practice? Have they examined issues from multiple perspectives and sought an understanding of “cui bono” (who benefits and who doesn’t by certain practices)? I and my fellow professors already have qualitative assessments (assignments) that help us to determine these things, but now we have to grotesquely contort ourselves into the quantitative mold and satisfy the “powers that be.” This stinks. And it makes me worry that, as my K-12 public school counterparts have experienced over the past 10 years with NCLB, if I don’t fight this forced contortion now, will it just keep getting worse and worse? Do I take a stand with my school director, college dean, and our accrediting agency and assert that some courses just don’t lend themselves well to quantitative measurements? Must I proclaim from the rooftops that “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts!”?
But then I think about the fact that I have not taken a substantive stand against the major source of quantitation that already exists in my classes–the process of grading my students. Does my capitulation to the practice of grading mean that I should be OK with all forms of quantitation? Am I being inconsistent if I am relatively OK with one (grading), yet reject the other (accreditation assessments)? Or are there distinctions between the two forms?
I have actually been muddling through this question of grades in the college classroom recently. I have written in the past about concerns I have had with grading at the K-12 level, about how it tends to take students’ focus away from actual learning, makes them less willing to take intellectual risks, and how it focuses them on extrinsic motivators rather than intrinsic, etc. But lately I have also been thankful for the fact that I have to grade my college-level students because I believe that it does a service for our school districts in their hiring processes (e.g. it gives them an idea of who are the students that tend to put in more effort, have more nuanced understandings, evidence more creativity, etc., which I think helps make HR decisions, and which ultimately leads school districts to get better teachers). I know in my heart of hearts that I should not feel this way because grades aren’t perfect — they don’t capture whether or not a student is having challenges outside of my class that are impacting what they can put into my class, nor do they capture other intangible things, but yet at the same time, I can’t overlook the fact that there seem to be students in every semester’s classes who, by my reckoning, far exceed other students in their diligence, creativity, and understanding of the practice of teaching (the nuances, the complexities, etc.). Shouldn’t such students get preference in being employed in this competitive economy?
But if I believe the above, then shouldn’t I also be OK with having my own work quantitatively measured (thru accreditation-mandated assessments)? What is good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, no? Should my students bristle because I seem to be assuming that without the grade hanging over their heads they won’t put in their best effort? Should they take a stand against me? And if they did, how would I react? Arrgghh, my brain hurts! How can I feel both ways at once? Do other teachers feel these inherent contradictions of their beliefs and practices? What can we do about it?