Getting the Assessment of Student Learning in College Right
There is a sea change afoot in the United States. A consensus has emerged among educators and employers regarding the kind of education college students need for success in work, civic participation and democratic citizenship, and life in the twenty-first century. Access and completion—goals on which federal and state legislators, policy makers, and the general public focus far too narrowly—are not enough. Given the challenges the United States faces in the economy and in the global community, higher education needs to focus with new intensity on providing the kinds of learning that build needed capacity, both for graduates and for society as a whole. Moreover, the growth in college-eligible students, which is occurring mainly in socioeconomic groups that have never been well served by higher education, requires new attention to what all students—including first- and second-generation students—gain from their time in college. This is the new frontier for assessment and accountability: documenting what college students know and can do with their learning.
What should college graduates know and be able to do? The consensus among educators and employers was captured clearly in a 2013 Hart Research Associates study of for-profit and nonprofit employers—the fourth such survey in six years with consistent results—that was released in conjunction with the announcement by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) of its Employer–Educator Compact. That consensus reflects almost exactly the key capacities identified through the association’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative as the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes : students need, across and beyond content knowledge, high competence in inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, integrative and reflective thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy,
information literacy, intercultural understanding, and teamwork and problem solving. As an illustration, here is just a sample of the findings of the Hart study:
• Nearly all employers (93 percent) agree that a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a job candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
• “More than nine in ten [employers] say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.
• Eight in ten employers say that, whatever their major field, all college students need broad learning in the liberal arts and sciences.
• More than 75 percent of the employers call for more emphasis on five key areas: “critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”
• “Employers endorse several educational practices as potentially helpful in preparing college students for workplace success,” including “practices that require students to conduct research and use evidence-based analysis,” to “gain in-depth knowledge in the major and analytic, problem-solving, and communication skills,” and to “apply their learning in real-world settings.” 4
Tellingly, employers put their compensation dollars into the jobs that require these kinds of higher education learning outcomes. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce economist Anthony Carnevale reports that “from a federal database analyzing qualifications for 1,100 different jobs, there is consistent evidence that the highest salaries apply to positions that call for intensive use of liberal education capabilities regardless of formal educational requirements, including: writing, inductive and deductive reasoning, judgment and decision-making, problem solving, social/interpersonal skills, mathematics, originality.” 5 Indeed, the 220 jobs in the upper quintile with regard to the extent to which they require these liberal education capabilities pay on average more than double what the 220 jobs in the lowest quintile pay. These are the key capacities that all students seeking at least the kind of compensation necessary for a middle-class existence will need in the twenty-first century because, according to Levy and Murnane, the jobs that don’t require these capacities will be “done by computers and low wage workers abroad.” 6 In their illuminating analysis of how work is changing in the twenty-first century, Levy and Murnane say that “we cannot predict with accuracy the occupations that will grow fastest in the future or the precise tasks that humans will perform. Nonetheless, it is a safe bet that the human labor market will center on three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying out non-routine manual tasks.” 7
The challenge to make high-quality learning a priority for all college students is clear. What will be higher education’s response?