Guest Post (Ezra Goldschlager): Don’t Call it Assessment – Focusing on “Assessment” is Alienating and Limiting

I’m delighted to welcome Ezra Goldschlager (LaVerne) for a guest post on the language of assessment:

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When the ABA drafted and approved Standard 314, requiring law schools to “utilize … assessment methods” to “measure and improve student learning,” it missed an opportunity to focus law schools’ attention and energy in the right place: continuous quality improvement. The ABA’s choice of language in 314 (requiring schools to engage in “assessment”) and the similarly framed 315 (requiring law schools to engage in “ongoing evaluation” of programs of legal education), will guide law schools down the wrong path for a few reasons.

Calling it “assessment” gives it an air of “otherness”; it conjures a now decades-old dialogue about a shift from teaching to learning, and brings with it all of the associated preconceptions (and baggage). “Assessment” is a loaded term of art, imbued with politics and paradigm shifts.

Because it is rooted in this history, “assessment” can overwhelm. While asking faculty to improve their teaching may not sound trivial, it does not impose the same burden that asking faculty to “engage in assessment” can. I can try to help my students learn better without thinking about accounting for a substantial body of literature, but ask me to “do assessment” and I may stumble at the starting line, at least vaguely aware of this body of literature, brimming with best practices and commandments requiring me to engage in serious study.

Calling it “assessment,” that is, labeling it as something stand-alone (apart from our general desires to get better at our professions), makes it easy (and natural) for faculty to consider it something additional and outside of their general responsibilities. Administrators can do “assessment,” we may conclude; I will “teach.”

When administrators lead faculties in “assessment,” the focus on measurement is daunting. Faculty buy-in is a chronic problem for assessment efforts, and that’s in part because of suspicion about what’s motivating the measurement or what might be done with the results. This suspicion is only natural — we expect, in general, that any measurement is done for a reason, and when administrators tell faculty to get on board with assessment, they must wonder: to what end?

Finally, and probably most important, calling it “assessment” makes the improvement part of the process seem separate and perhaps optional. We don’t usually go to doctors just for a diagnosis; we want to get better. Asking one’s doctor to “diagnose,” however, does leave the question hanging: does my patient want me to help her improve, too? Calling it “assessment” puts the focus on only part of a cycle that must be completed if we are to make any of the assessing worthwhile. “Don’t just assess, close the loop,” faculty are admonished. That admonishment might not be as necessary if the instruction, in the first place, were not just to “assess.”

New Article: Building a Culture of Assessment in Legal Education

On SSRN, I have a draft article posted entitled, “Building a Culture of Assessment in Law Schools.” It is available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3216804.

Here’s the abstract:

A new era of legal education is upon us: Law schools are now required to assess learning outcomes across their degrees and programs, not just in individual courses. Programmatic assessment is new to legal education, but it has existed in higher education for decades. To be successful, assessment requires cooperation and buy-in from faculty. Yet establishing a culture of assessment in other disciplines has not been easy, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any different in legal education. A survey of provosts identified faculty buy-in as the single biggest challenge towards implementing assessment efforts. This article surveys the literature on culture of assessment, including conceptual papers and quantitative and qualitative studies. It then draws ten themes from the literature about how to build a culture of assessment: (1) the purpose of assessment, which is a form of scholarship, is improving student learning, not just for satisfying accreditors; (2) assessment must be faculty-driven; (3) messaging and communication around assessment is critical, from the reasons for assessment through celebrating successes; (4) faculty should be provided professional development, including in their own graduate studies; (5) resources are important; (6) successes should be rewarded and recognized; (7) priority should be given to utilizing faculty’s existing assessment devices rather than employing externally developed tests; (8) the unique needs of contingent faculty and other populations should be considered; (9) to accomplish change, stakeholders should draw on theories of leadership, business, motivation, and the social process of innovation; and (10) student affairs should be integrated with faculty and academic assessment activities. These themes, if implemented by law schools, will help programmatic assessment to become an effective addition to legal education and not just something viewed as a regulatory burden.

What is unique about this paper is that it draws almost exclusively from literature outside of legal education. Since assessment is new for a lot of law schools, we can learn a lot from those in other fields who have gone before us. The “scholarship of assessment” articles are particularly fascinating, since they employ rigorous empirical methods to ascertain the best practices for building a culture of assessment.

I welcome thoughts and reactions at Larry.Cunningham@stjohns.edu!