The Inmates Running the Asylum?
Limited Improvement. It would be remiss of us not to mention that accreditation has seen limited improvement along these dimensions in the form of a decline in inappropriate requirements, and a push for the establishment of measures for things like learning outcomes, but the progress has been unsatis- factory. It would also be remiss not to mention why we have seen this limited improvement. Inappropri- ate requirements have declined due to public reporting of embarrassing policies of accreditors, and the baby steps taken towards requiring student learning outcomes have also been spurred primarily by exter- nal pressure, most notably the 1992 and 1998 renewals of the Higher Education Act.
These reforms in theory required accreditors to demand learning outcomes from the nation’s colleges. However, as Leef and Burris document, schools “can satisfy the accreditation criteria by merely showing that they have adopted some program to assess their ‘effectiveness,’ without any independent verification that the program actually works.” They astutely conclude that “simply meeting one’s own goals is not equivalent to an objective demonstration of educational quality.”176
Another effort to spur accreditation to examine student learning was launched in 2006 and killed shortly thereafter. As Peter T. Ewell summarizes, in the wake of the Spellings Commission report:
The U.S. Department of Education quickly moved to implement its recommendations on accreditation... First, the department employed negotiated rule making…to require accreditors to set specific ‘bright line’ standards of student achievement… In a second line of attack, the secretary directed the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)—the federal body responsible for approving accredit- ing organizations to act as gatekeepers for federal funds—to be more aggressive in pressing accreditors to examine student learning outcomes against defined objective standards… If fully implemented, the provisions of the 2007 negotiated rule-making process and the new posture of NACIQI would have significantly transformed the accountability role of assessment. But all of this was put on hold in the summer of 2007 when the Senate passed its version of the reauthorization act. Led by Tennessee Sena- tor and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, this bill explicitly prohibited the secretary from pursuing new regulations.177
There are also some indications that the limited gains that have been achieved are being reversed, as accreditors again revert to a focus on improvement.
Why Aren’t there Adequate Measures of Academic Quality? Since it is clear that “any serious analysis of accreditation as it is currently practiced results in the unmistakable conclusion that institutional pur- poses, rather than public purposes, predominate,” we should ask why there are no useful measures of aca- demic quality.178
Perhaps it is simply not possible to establish meaningful measures when it comes to learning out- comes. Some argue that “for many [colleges] the student bodies are so different and the set of peer insti- tutions so small that comparisons made for purposes of public accountability would be meaningless or misleading—and potentially harmful. Should these institutions compare their student achievement with that of peer institutions? Yes. Are the comparisons robust enough to be used for public comparisons and accountability? No.”179 While there is a grain of truth to this line of reasoning, it is undermined by the fact that professors and colleges manage to assess student performance for the purposes of assigning grades and computing GPA’s.