Massachusetts to gauge college students’ learning

UMass is among the state schools where students’ learning will be assessed.

Next fall, Massachusetts will embark on a unique venture with eight other states to assess how well college students are learning in state schools.

“This board asked this department to do something which has never been done before in the history of American higher education,” Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland told the Board of Higher Education on Tuesday morning.

“It’s a great system of assessing student learning that will permit us to report to the public in a way the public can understand, not just a grade and 120 credits but some metric that makes sense of the level of student learning being achieved by students at community colleges, state universities and UMass that will make comparisons with other states, so we can know how Massachusetts is doing in comparison.”

After a pilot phase completed last spring in Massachusetts, the program of assessing students based on their classwork will expand to Rhode Island, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon and Utah.

“The minute that student work leaves the campus, you have anonymity,” said Bonnie Orcutt, a Worcester State University economics professor who has been working with higher education official Pat Crosson on developing the model.

Orcutt and Crosson told the News Service that certain assignments will be selected, and once all identifying information is scrubbed, they will be submitted to a group of educators from the participating states who will assess students’ abilities using rubrics. Generally, the classwork will be judged based on writing skill, ability to think using numbers and critical thinking.

“You’re walking this balance between competition and collaboration,” said Orcutt.

Crosson said it was a better method of evaluating student performance than standardized tests because it engages the faculty and their curricula.

“Everybody in higher education knows that if this doesn’t work, the next answer is a standardized test probably imposed by the federal government or by states, and nobody wants to go there,” Freeland said.

Orcutt, who is also director of learning outcomes assessment for the Department of Higher Education, said the classwork will be collected this fall and assessed next spring. Students will be told their work might be used in the assessment, but they will not know whether their work was used.

The first state pilot program of the assessment was funded by the Davis Education Foundation, and the multistate effort is funded by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, through grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The first participating campuses out of the 28 undergraduate state schools were Bristol Community College, Framingham State University, Middlesex Community College, Mount Wachusett Community College, Northern Essex Community College and UMass Lowell. MassMaritime and MassArt are not planning to participate because their curricula are specialized; more campuses might be part of the effort beginning in the fall of 2014, Orcutt and Crosson said.

Unlike the Graduate Record Exam, which measures students’ ability in an area of study, the new method assesses students’ competency in specific areas of learning, the education officials said. Crosson said standardized tests measure what someone knows, while other assessments seek to gauge how well they have learned.

“Often what that tells you is where they start, what they come in with,” said Crosson, criticizing standardized tests.

On other metrics, students at Massachusetts state schools are behind their peers in national comparisons. The pass rates on national licensure exams for students at state universities and UMass are both behind the national average, and UMass students’ scores at graduate entrance exams are about average, according to findings published by the Department of Higher Education.

Follow Metro Boston on Twitter: @MetroBOS


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