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 Montpelier Magazine

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Robin Anderson earns JMU's first doctorate in assessment and measurement

Armed with the world's first doctorate in assessment and measurement, Robin Anderson has the job market at her feet. "Part of my job search is going to be narrowing the type of work I do because I believe I am prepared for such a variety of different disciplines," Anderson says. "I'm excited and at the same time slightly overwhelmed by all the possibilities. What all these possibilities have in common is the need to meet the growing cry of "show me" from consumers, taxpayers, legislators, elected officials, boards, overseers - all of whom supply funding in exchange for the delivery of goods and

services. "Today everyone expects to know what they're getting for their money," says Dary Erwin, renowned leader in the assessment field and director of JMU's Center for Assessment and Research Studies. "When we shop at the grocery store, isn't it helpful to

read the breakdown of ingredients, nutrients, calories, sugar and fat content? We wouldn't dream of buying food products without checking that nutrition label on the back of the package." That attitude now extends into the public arena, Erwin explains. Legislatures used to take it on good faith and a handshake that the public agencies they funded were doing what they said they were doing. "Today, money is tight, competition for funding is fierce and legislators, like the taxpayers who elected them, are demanding accountability.

Anderson's doctor of psychology degree in assessment and measurement prepares her to show objective proof of the quality and effectiveness of programs that have traditionally been difficult to measure. The field of assessment is about producing the evidence to affirm claims of the benefits and values of a service, program or product.

The doctoral graduate's expertise reaches into the heart of higher education too.

"People want to know what the value of college is, what they are paying for, want to understand where the money goes," Erwin says, "and that would include elected officials.

"We can no longer just say, 'Yes, we produce people who have better interpersonal communication skills,' for instance. We have to bring some evidence to the table that says, 'This is where our people are getting it, and these numbers show that," Erwin says.

"Legislators in statehouses everywhere are now saying to us, the same as they do with every other entity, 'Show us. Give us some hard evidence that this is happening.' That's what led to the SOLs in Virginia and to similar programs in about half the other states in the country."

Ultimately, Anderson's mission will be to show that her future employer - whether a college or a social service agency or a corporation - is, in fact, delivering on the goods it promised.

It has not been done quite like this before. A solid base of psychology courses separates JMU's assessment and measurement program, which began in 1998, from traditional measurement programs. When assessing and measuring the effectiveness of a program, Erwin explains, "We are dealing with people, and so we need to know what's going on behind the scenes with people as much as we can." Through courses in statistics, psychology, public policy and communication, JMU's program charts new territory by taking a comprehensive look at both the test and the test-taker, Erwin says.

"In traditional measurement programs, people are given the tools but do not know the whys, the reasons behind how people think," Erwin says. "In policy programs, they are given the whys, but do not know how to do the measuring. What makes our program different is that we are teaching our students how to design tools to measure subject-matter knowledge, and then also how to pay attention to and measure how people think and learn," Erwin says.

It was the right combination for Anderson. "What attracted me to the program was the combination of the examinee and the exam," the doctoral graduate says. "My primary area of interest when it comes to research is the psychology of the examinee. … And that's where the psychology courses come in so handy - cognitive, social, developmental - because our professors want you to understand the human beings that you are assessing.

Anderson continues, "I think to be a good assessment person you need to be a strong technician. You need to be good at the measurement piece, and that's one part I like about the program. It gives you that strong technical piece in measurement, but it was always how it related to the assessment situation and to the students."

This novel mix puts Anderson at the forefront as the world's first graduate in this field. Others will follow soon, however, as people realize they have no choice but to show their own effectiveness.

For years, Erwin has been beating the warning drum about the trend toward the demand for accountability. In this day when distance learning is hot and research is just a mouse click away, people are asking, "Why fund traditional colleges?" JMU's assessment and measurement program and its graduates can answer that question. They can provide the numbers and hard evidence that can affirm the importance of traditional colleges.

JMU is among the first to step up to the challenge. Two years ago, one of Linwood Rose's first moves as JMU's new president was to create the Division of Institutional Effectiveness to monitor the use of resources and provide evidence that JMU is meeting its goals. The division, which includes Erwin's assessment and measurement experts and other campus oversight operations, has made accountability part of the JMU culture.

Anderson, who put her knowledge into practice at nearby Bridgewater College for her doctoral internship, is sure that she and the applied assessment and measurement professionals who follow her through JMU's doctoral program will be the pioneers who will meet the public's increasing demand for greater accountability.

"I can show employers that I know how to generate results, not just that I have read about that or that I have taken tests about it," she says. "We come out of this program knowing how to do things."

By Bill Gentry