Don’t confuse assessment with evaluation

One of the challenges facing faculty and other campus members working on assessment initiatives is the confusion that can be caused by the terms assessment and evaluation. These two words are typically considered synonyms and, on a campus, these words may be embedded in faculty handbook language associated with the processes used for salary reviews and for tenure and promotion decisions—processes that can be charged with emotion. The issue of separating the term assessment (as related to student learning) from evaluation (as related to faculty performance) has been discussed often in assessment literature (e.g., Walvoord, 2004, Driscoll and Wood, 2007, and Suskie, 2009). The need for clear definitions arises from the common faculty concern that processes developed for the assessment of student learning might collect information that might also be used in the evaluation of performance of individual faculty members.

In my ideal world, there should be only one connection between assessment of student learning and evaluation of faculty performance—faculty should be expected to and be rewarded for using assessment of student learning to improve student learning in their classes. Documentation of these assessment efforts would be included in performance reviews but the documentation would be limited to a description of what was learned from the assessment process and of what the faculty member was doing differently as a result of that learning. The only time actual student work should be collected from students in a course and passed on to a department head, program chair, or program director, would be when the work collected provided evidence of student learning related to specific outcomes of an academic program (e.g., an academic major or requirements of a general education program). When work is collected for this purpose, student names and course identification information should be removed from the student work.

Most academic assessment plans follow an approach regarding evidence of student work that aligns with my ideal world. However, I recognize that in a small college, an assignment collected from the students in a course, because of the nature of the topic of that assignment, might provide sufficient information to identify the particular course and instructor. For assessment initiatives to be successful on smaller campuses, it is important for the campus community to be able to develop trust in the processes and people involved in assessment.

To help create that trust, it is useful to clarify the definitions of assessment and evaluation and to use the two terms carefully in campus conversations and in campus documents (e.g., in the faculty handbook and in assessment plans). As a starting point, I recommend Walvoord’s (2004) definition of assessment as a three part process:

  1. Articulating goals for student learning (“When they complete our program, students will be able to…”).
  2. Gathering evidence about how well students are meeting the goals.
  3. Using the information for improvement.

The use of the term evaluation, on the other hand, should be limited to descriptions of the act, process, or instance of appraising value.

More thoughtful use of these two terms and their definitions—assessment as a process of continuous improvement and evaluation as a determination of whether something has value or someone is successful—will hopefully contribute to the foundations for robust campus conversations about student learning and minimize common faculty concerns related to the conflation of assessment and evaluation processes.

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