The Maddening Lingo of Assessment

“Best practices.” “Stakeholders.” Enrollment management “levers.”  Higher education is filled with a lingo all its own.  (For many legal educators, “assessment” may very well be added to the list of “higher ed speak,” terms crafted by bureaucrats to ensure job security.  As I’ve explained elsewhere, I see assessment as valuable and connected with our role as scholars.)

One of the best pieces of advice I heard about developing an assessment culture was to avoid getting caught up in terminology.  And the land of assessment certainly has plenty of terminology to throw around.  Is something a “goal,” “objective,” or “outcome”?  In our curriculum map, do we ask whether intermediate level of learning is measured by “competence” or “reinforcement”?   Is a particular tool a “direct assessment” or “indirect assessment”?

Part of the challenge here is that there is not a common vocabulary (yet) for us to work from.  The regional accreditors each use their own lingo, and the ABA standards define only a few terms, such as formative and summative assessment (see Interpretation 314-1).

More broadly, the problem with overuse of—and quibbling about—lingo is that it distracts us from the purpose of assessment: to improve student learning.  The more we get caught up in terminology, the less we are to focus on goal-setting, measurement, and improvement, the three cornerstones of assessment. One of the reasons I am a big fan of Barbara Walvoord’s book, Assessment Clear and Simple, is that it emphasizes a theme of: “Keep it simple!” (p. 2).  Writing about the difference between goals, objectives, and outcomes, she states:

[T]erms [such as goal, objective, and outcome] are used inconsistently in the literature, so don’t get hung up on the distinctions. Trying to get a whole faculty to understand and consistently employ a particular distinction among these terms may be futile.

(Walvoord, p. 14).  And a waste of time, I would argue.  Whether something is called a goal or objective is less important than whether it is well written, specific, and measurable.  Avoiding quibbling about lingo also has the advantage of showing reluctant faculty that assessment is focused on substance, not form.  And given where we are with assessment in legal education, the more faculty support we have, the better.