Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1


Dean Adam Falk
Adam Falk


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Assessing Assessment

When I ask alumni what they value most about their Johns Hopkins education, I hear two themes consistent across generations and areas of study. They say what was important and lasting was that they learned to think rigorously. And many tell me they did not fully realize the significance of their experience here until years after they graduated.

The values inherent in that first theme are ones we have embraced since the university's founding. Indeed, in his inaugural address in 1876, President Daniel Coit Gilman said,

The object of the university is to develop character…[i]ts purport is not so much to impart knowledge to the pupils, as to whet the appetite, exhibit methods, develop powers, strengthen judgment, and invigorate the intellectual and moral forces.

Then, as now, our purpose is not to train but to educate.

If this is our mission, how do we know how well we accomplish it? There are no simple answers to this question—no standardized test, no magazine ranking, no convenient statistics that can fully measure our success in view of this rich and subtle ideal. Rather, we look to the faculty to gauge and report on the quality of student work. We look to the placement of students in graduate and professional schools and in the workforce, and we look to the accomplishments of our alumni and their impact on the world. We believe we educate our students well, and we continually re-examine our efforts for ways to do even better. Our philosophy of education is consistent, and our accountability to it profound.

Now, however, we find ourselves in the midst of a national conversation about higher education in which a quite different notion of accountability is central. The 2006 report of the commission appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings described an American university system in need of "urgent reform," unsure of its educational purposes and unable to evaluate its own success or failure. The solution proposed by some is a system of accreditation that would rely on standardized tests and the assessment of "outcomes" to evaluate, reward, and punish colleges and universities. The Spellings Commission's recommendations have informed much of the debate about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, as well as mandates that independent accrediting agencies have sought to take upon themselves. The debates have been difficult and at times bitter, and all too often appear more to be a struggle over power, control, and resources than an informed and passionate conversation about a critical and treasured institution.

Of course, there is legitimate public interest that the resources we devote to higher education be spent efficiently and effectively. We at Hopkins and elsewhere are accustomed to having that conversation every day, as we stretch budgets to fulfill the many and diverse missions of the university. My concern is that the current emphasis on assessment, with its focus on standardization and quantification, will impel us to an impoverished vision of higher education that would do our nation a profound disservice. Some specific Spellings Commission recommendations—that "accreditation agencies should make performance outcomes…the core of their assessment as a priority over inputs and processes," and that "higher education institutions should measure student learning using quality-assessment data from instruments such as…the Collegiate Learning Assessment [a common standardized test]"—would move us in a direction utterly antithetical to Daniel Coit Gilman's vision.

We must understand that an extensive new standardized testing regime plays a central role in these proposals simply because of its convenience, not because these tests measure what we believe is important. The problem is not the tests per se; rather it is that, despite suppositions to the contrary, a single test cannot uniformly evaluate the quality of the student experience, and the essential "value added" of an education is not largely revealed by graduation. Our alumni testify regularly to these critical facts.

But, one might ask, what is the harm in a few more tests? To paraphrase Albert Einstein, everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. As a physicist, I know that the analysis of meaningless numbers is worse than ignorance. More importantly, we Americans must not falter in our support of the marvelous complexity of truly high quality education. For my part, I promise you that here at Johns Hopkins, we will always live by Gilman's vision and keep it clearly in our sights. And that is accountability of which we can all be proud.

Adam F. Falk
James B. Knapp Dean