Assessment Stars Aim High

From: Public Affairs

On May 6 Robin Anderson had a full-circle moment. Ten years after receiving the first doctor of psychology degree in assessment and measurement awarded by James Madison University she once again stood on the stage at the Graduate School commencement.

Proving Our Worth


If you have attended James Madison University in the last 25 years, then you have participated in Assessment Day. The annual event for sophomores and seniors is designed and managed by JMU's Center for Assessment and Research Studies.

CARS Executive Director Dr. Donna Sundre says it blows people's minds in her profession when she tells them that JMU has a 93 percent response rate on Assessment Day. "They can't believe it but this is what happens at a school that pays attention to student learning," said Sundre. "Assessment Day is part of the JMU culture."

Student participation, the assessment instruments CARS designs and the university's commitment to student learning make JMU an international leader in assessment and measurement.

Thanos Patelis, vice president of research and analysis for the College Board, said there is a lot of attention in our country on K-12 assessment but not enough on higher education. "When we think about what is important for our country, we need more assessment centers like JMU has," said Patelis. "JMU is a front-runner and one of the few institutions that do it right."

JMU's commitment to assessment started in 1985 when the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia awarded JMU a grant to study assessment and accountability at the university. This was followed in 1988 with permanent funding from SCHEV for an Assessment Center.

Highlights of the last 25 years include creating a doctoral program in assessment and measurement, supporting JMU's first spin-off company, Madison Assessment, and being recognized an unprecedented two times in the last six years by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as recipient of the CHEA Award for Outstanding Institutional Practice in Student Learning Outcomes.

Sundre says it's the scope, breadth and depth of assessment that make JMU stand out. "We conduct assessment on the General Education program, student affairs and on all the majors," she said. From the beginning CARS included student affairs in its assessment efforts, which is unusual at most universities.

"We hire measurement experts, so we create our own instruments," said Sundre. Other institutions started to take notice of JMU's expertise several years ago and began purchasing assessment tests written by the CARS staff. In 2010 this led to the creation of Madison Assessment LLC, a company that markets tests licensed by CARS to colleges and universities around the country and the globe.

CARS is busier than ever. Each month Sundre publishes a progress report. It reads, "Progress toward achieving the CARS mission during the month was evidenced by the following activities and achievements." The April report was six pages of research, papers and presentations.

"JMU is a very self-reflective institution that revolves around student growth and development and that is the heart of what assessment is," said Sundre.

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Published: June 3, 2011
Anderson, associate director of the Center for Assessment and Research Studies and associate professor in graduate psychology, had the honor of placing the hoods, the academic regalia signifying completion of their doctoral degrees, on Javarro Russell and Megan France, her two advisees.

The excitement felt by Russell and France at earning their doctorates in assessment and measurement was matched by the thrill Anderson felt to mentor her two advisees to this moment.

"I was excited by all the possibilities that are before Megan and Javarro," said Anderson. "They each have the potential to impact our global society in truly meaningful ways. I see no end to what they can accomplish."

The First One

Anderson was not just the first JMU graduate with a doctorate in assessment and measurement, she was the first one in the world. JMU pioneered the way and is still one of the few programs in the country to offer a blend of theory-based course work and real-world assessment experience.

For Anderson it was the equal emphasis on the psychology of the person taking the test and the expertise in measurement to create an assessment test that drew her to the program.

Anderson graduated in 2001 and went to work for the Virginia Community College System as the director of institutional research and effectiveness. In 2007 she was recruited back to JMU to work for CARS and, like her colleagues, take on the dual role of teaching in the assessment and measurement program.

Anderson values the opportunity she has had to advise Russell and France through the doctoral program. "A real strength of our program is we work on the mentoring relationship of advising," she said.

Reflecting on the differences between her experience in the program and her advisees, Anderson said the biggest change is the community that has developed because of the strength of the program. Russell and France are the 32nd and 33rd doctorate students to graduate in the last 10 years.

"When we go to regional and national conferences JMU now has such a huge presence which wasn't the case 10 years ago when literally I was the only one," said Anderson.

Representing the Program

From Anderson's graduate experience to today, the philosophical approach of the program has remained the same. "I could not have imagined a more student-centered faculty or a more thoughtful educational experience," said Russell.

France agrees. "The faculty are outstanding. They have a strong commitment to the students and the program. They give us the support and guidance necessary to help us excel as researchers, practitioners and individuals," she said.

"We all have a sense of pride about this program," said France. "I recently returned from a conference in New Orleans that many JMU students and faculty attended. I heard over and over from people outside of the program how great the JMU presentations were. It was wonderful to see so many JMU alumni, current students and future graduates together in one place."

Russell and France are good representatives of where students in JMU's assessment and measurement program go after graduation, often to a testing environment or into higher education.

Russell has accepted employment at the National Board of Medical Examiners as a psychometrician. "I will be ensuring the quality of scores on an exam that is used for the licensure of medical doctors in the United States," said Russell. "I will also be working with medical schools to identify appropriate pre-licensure assessments for their students."

France will begin her career as the director of assessment for the School of Education and Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University in California. She will work closely with the faculty by assisting with the development of student learning outcomes, design and data analysis and report writing. "From an employment perspective, in a time where jobs are hard to come by, I was able to choose the job I wanted and choose where I wanted to live," said France. "There is a high demand for the people this program produces."

Like her advisees, Anderson will also move on this summer as she takes on the role of department head of JMU's graduate psychology programs in July.

Thanos Patelis, vice president of research and analysis for the College Board, who has hired several graduates of the assessment and measurement doctoral program, said the JMU students receive great training, not just in content and philosophy but in the practice and application of assessment. "It is not just the occasional star coming out of JMU, they're all stars," said Patelis.



Published June 3, 2011