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NCA suggestions and requirements for assessment at CU-Boulder


On April 17-19, 2000, an evaluation team from the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) visited the CU-Boulder campus as part of the 10-year re-accreditation process. Following is a summary (including some verbatim excerpts) of the portions of their subsequent report that discuss outcomes assessment.

The NCA report lists and discusses five major criteria for accreditation, one of which is "The institution is accomplishing its educational and other purposes." One of the items listed and discussed under this criterion is assessment of student learning, about which the report says:

Over the past 10 years, CU-Boulder has established a broad-based campus assessment program implemented by the Planning, Budgeting and Analysis office (PBA) to assist faculty members, administrators, and others evaluate the curriculum, plan improvements, and evaluate the effects of changes for improvements. Most of the emphasis is placed on individual program reviews at the undergraduate level supplemented by data collection and analysis of institutional records with regard to the first-year experience. Program reviews and self-studies are performed every seven years, and student satisfaction surveys are regularly administered to graduating seniors and to alumni. Response rates have been about 50 percent, quite good for surveys of this type.

Although considerable program-level data about student and program performance is available, individual units vary widely in the degree to which they use this information to improve the quality of the educational experience. The campus should consider ways to encourage and hold respective units accountable for demonstrating how they are using assessment data for program improvement purposes. As previously noted (see note), the most serious shortcoming in this regard is related to graduate student performance and research. Here, data collection efforts have been less frequent and the uses of the information have not been clearly articulated.

CU-Boulder typically relies on peer comparisons generated from such sources as U.S. News & World Report and others which focus primarily on inputs and a limited number of process indicators and few outcome measures such as persistence rates. More peer comparisons are needed to develop benchmarks against which the university's progress can be measured. CU-Boulder is participating in the spring 2000 administration of the National Survey of Student Engagement, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which will provide some institutional-level data about student engagement beyond the first year, as both first-year and senior students are being surveyed. Perhaps a seminar for the Board of Regents could be offered that focuses on the importance of outcomes assessment and what has been learned to date about CU-Boulder and program improvement. Informed Regents can be very helpful in championing institutional improvement efforts and making such efforts an ongoing institutional priority.

Finally, there is not presently a coherent, widespread understanding of what types of information should constitute an effective outcomes assessment strategy. In part, this is because many people view program reviews, student and alumni surveys, and retention studies as independent rather than related activities that are needed to provide a comprehensive picture of the student experience and the quality of student learning at the university.

Suggestion for improvement include:

a) CU-Boulder should articulate and clarify a set of educational goals and desired outcomes for all undergraduates. These should be consistent with those described in the catalog for the respective academic units and with the new core curriculum adopted by the College of Arts and Sciences, and direct measures of student learning should be aligned with those goals and measurable objectives.

b) The student experience should be examined in a more comprehensive way including both experiences inside and outside the classroom with a particular emphasis on the character and influence of student groupings that form in off-campus residences after the first year of college. The concept of "academic neighborhoods" is conceptually consistent with the effort to keep students linked to the campus in intentional ways through the academic program or academic mission of the institution. But how this plan will be implemented is not clear. In order to realize the promise of the Total Learning Environment initiative, this information is essential.

c) A high profile campus-level assessment steering committee should be created to coordinate, prioritize, and hold various units and campus level agents accountable for collecting and using assessment data to improve student learning and for institutional improvement purposes. Such a group should be comprised of key faculty members, senior academic and student affairs administrators, students, and staff. Perhaps the committee could be a standing committee of the Boulder Faculty Assembly with strong endorsement and support from senior administration. The committee would not itself collect and manage assessment data, but rather would provide a vision and work with those personnel in institutional analysis and elsewhere on the campus who collect, analyze and interpret assessment data. (pp. 34-36)

In another section of the NCA report, titled "Institutional Strengths, Suggestions, and Concerns," assessment is a topic listed under "Concerns." The evaluation team writes that "there are a variety of opportunities for the institution to collect more information that can be utilized for assessment purposes," but that "appropriate information utilized in an assessment instrument is only the first part of a healthy assessment culture in a university" (p. 49) with the second part being the use of assessment results to inform change and improvement. The team then makes the following recommendation:

The University of Colorado at Boulder should prepare a three-year progress report on the use of assessment as a tool to improve undergraduate and graduate student learning and for institutional improvement in the fall of 2003, with a copy to NCA. This report should focus on undergraduate and graduate education on the CU-Boulder campus. We believe that the steps CU-Boulder takes in the next three years to institutionalize assessment will benefit the university, and the progress report will serve as a stimulant and summary for this initiative. (p. 50, emphasis in the original).

Finally, in the last section of the NCA report, "Team's Recommendation and Rationale," the evaluation team states that the assessment area has been set aside for special focus, and that a plan of response to that (and other concerns) is "required for the University to maintain and build on the high level of excellence it now enjoys" (p. 51, emphasis in original). Further,

We believe it is to the university's great advantage if assessment of student learning and the use of this information along with program review is coupled directly to curriculum reform and program improvement. While impressive progress has been demonstrated at the undergraduate level in assessment, we did not see compelling evidence of the coupling envisaged above at the institutional level.

Therefore, the team recommends that the University of Colorado at Boulder prepare a three-year progress report on the use of assessment as a tool for institutional improvement in the fall of 2003, with a copy to NCA. (pp. 51-52, emphasis in original. There is a recommended due date for the report of 4/1/03 on a worksheet attached to the NCA report; this discrepancy in due dates needs to be clarified.)

Note: In an earlier section of the report discussing graduate education at CU-Boulder, the NCA team recommends steps to facilitate decision making in the graduate school. Included in these are centralizing data collection on graduate programs (e.g., time to degree, financial support, enrollment, diversity, five-year outcomes), as well as conducting surveys of such issues as how graduate students select CU-Boulder and how satisfied they are with their education after graduation.

PBA: PS-- L:\IR\OUTCOMES\misc\ncarecs2.doc - 12/05/00.

Last revision 01/04/05

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