Addressing Student Learning
With no common benchmarks, how do we know that students achieve?
By Judith S. Eaton
Judith Eaton is president of the National Council for Higher Education
Accreditation, Washington, D.C.
MEASURING UP 2000 has achieved one of the goals of the National Center for Public Policy and
Higher Education: “To foster discussion of public policy issues affecting education and training
beyond high school.” It is too early to say how much discussion will take place over time. But the report,
released in fall 2000, already has garnered attention from The Chronicle of Higher Education, USA
Today, the Boston Globe and the Times Higher Education Supplement —to mention just a few publica-tions.
I imagine that the real test will be at the state level, and the extent to which the report’s findings
engender meaningful conversation and action about higher education.
It was the report’s treatment of student learning that captured my interest. The admission that we in
higher education cannot provide sound information about whether or not students are learning was, at
least to me, staggering. I must point out, however, that I have found very few people in our enterprise
who share my reaction.
Peter Ewell, in his thoughtful essay on student learning that accompanies the report, said that not
addressing student learning in this context is quite appropriate. He pointed out that there are no com-mon
benchmarks that would allow for meaningful state-to-state comparisons. At present, states examine
student learning indirectly by asking public colleges and universities to report on this, and some states
(fewer than ten) administer a common test to students. Ewell also reminded us that state efforts do not
extend to private colleges and universities.
But, as Measuring Up 2000 fosters further discussion of higher education in the various states, can it
also function as a stimulus to address student learning—whether or not, ultimately, this is a state issue?
Here are a few questions about gathering and using evidence of student learning that might enliven
future conversations and actions. I hope that these issues get some consideration:
What counts as evidence of student achievement, learning gains and competencies? How do we
know that students achieve, have certain competencies or skills, and can be said to have made gains in
learning? A straightforward answer to this question is that faculty tell us: Academics make judgments
about how well students perform in various courses of study. Grades summarize these judgments.
The problem is, however, that grades no longer
are perceived as sufficient evidence of student learn-ing.
Employers, public officials or students and fami-lies—
even some educators—are asking for more direct
evidence of what students can do. Grades don’t
“count” the way they use to. We either need to rehabil-itate
the value of the grade as adequate evidence of
student achievement or come up with other indicators.
What is an appropriate venue (“unit of analysis”)
for obtaining evidence of student learning? Measuring
Up 2000 uses the state as a unit of analysis and, as
pointed out, this unit is not yet adequate to obtain the
needed evidence of student learning—hence, the
“Incomplete” grade. Some observers contend that the
unit of analysis should be national, while others suggest
that the institution, the program or even the course are
appropriate units. My own view is that compiling evi-dence
of student achievement is an institutional issue and, first and foremost, the responsibility of faculty.
How do we develop a common language to address student learning? A major obstacle to address-ing
student learning is, at least to me, the confused language that we use to talk about it. Can we agree
on what we mean by some key terms and distinctions?
If we are to better address student learning outcomes in the future, we must devote our attention to
reaching agreement on what counts as evidence of student learning, on what our unit of analysis should
be, and on seeking a common language. While Measuring Up 2000 does not focus directly on these
issues, it nonetheless raises them for our consideration. And it provides a useful service.