Nikole Gregg, a first year psychological sciences master’s student and Courtney Sanders, a third-year assessment and measurement doctoral student had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Kate McConnell during her recent visit to JMU. McConnell, Senior Director for Research and Assessment at the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), shared her experiences and thoughts on the current and future state of higher education assessment practices. McConnell has extensive experience in evaluation and assessment and prior to her position at AAC&U, she served as the Director of Assessment for Undergraduate Academic Affairs at Virginia Tech and as the President of the Virginia Assessment Group.

Currently, McConnell helps lead AAC&U’s work on assessment of student learning. Dr. McConnellShe also works on several projects included in AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) initiative.  Under the VALUE initiative, one of McConnell’s biggest projects is her work with the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment (MSC). The MSC is a partnership between AAC&U, the State Higher Education Executive Officer’s association (SHEEO), and 13 state higher education systems. Participating institutions collect samples of work from students who are approaching completion of their academic programs, to submit with student demographic information to the national VALUE database. Student work is then evaluated by a team of faculty scorers from various institutions using select VALUE rubrics developed to assess “Essential Learning Outcomes”. States hope to partner with their participating institutions to inform state-level decision making about student achievement.

McConnell attributes the success of AAC&U’s initiatives to two strategies: 1) translating difficult higher education concepts to multiple audiences and 2) providing useful resources, grounded in campus-based practices at AAC&U member institutions, such as such as the VALUE rubrics. The VALUE rubrics have been one of the most successful large-scale initiatives related to student learning outcomes assessment in the past decade. McConnell believes that AAC&U is currently well positioned to work with institutions that use the VALUE rubrics to identify areas of the essential learning outcomes where students are not meeting desired levels of attainment. She stressed the importance of collaborating with others outside of AAC&U to advance the research related to the VALUE rubrics. 

Collaboration is a critical piece of McConnell’s work at AAC&U. When asked about obstacles with the MSC and other projects, McConnell mentioned that the relatively small size of her office and the organization as a whole means that almost every large scale project at AAC&U involves critical collaborations with other organizations (like SHEEO), institutions, and scholars. Looking at the situation from an optimistic perspective, McConnell sees this as an opportunity to partner with faculty and assessment professionals across the country. For example, Peter Ewell, George Kuh, and Gary Pike – all “names” in the assessment world – have contributed their expertise to the creation and stewardship of the MSC.  That said, AAC&U also believes in identifying and collaborating with the “next generation” of assessment leaders. McConnell identified one such opportunity recently involving JMU’s own Dr. John Hathcoat, Assistant Professor in Graduate Psychology and Assistant Assessment Specialist in the Center for Assessment and Research Studies (CARS).

In several articles – including the most recent about the project in the Chronicle for Higher Education entitled “The Next Great Hope for Measuring Learning”, Hathcoat raised concerns about the validity of using different student assignments to measure a common standard, as is the process of the MSC. Based on his feedback, McConnell identified Hathcoat as a potential “critical friend” for the project, and decided to ask Hathcoat to join the team because he has expertise in performance assessment and validity theory. AAC&U wants to embrace the variability in assignments that institutions can submit as part of the MSC, but they also recognize this strategy may have implications on the conclusions that are drawn from the initiative. McConnell claims, “We have a huge responsibility to establish the methodological value of this approach…” and in partnership with Hathcoat and faculty from a few other universities, she hopes to establish a sound methodological framework for the ongoing MSC work.

When asked what future assessment professionals can do to promote quality practices, McConnell offered Gregg and Sanders three pieces of advice. First, remember that assessment work is relational. That is, assessment professionals should do their homework, come prepared when working with diverse groups of faculty and staff, and facilitate the assessment conversation. Second, scaffold information when working with faculty and staff. For example, assessment professionals should gauge where colleagues are in the assessment process by asking the right questions, know when to push faculty to achieve more, and know when to slow down and help faculty make improvements gradually over time. Finally, assessment professionals should communicate data in meaningful ways. Specifically, they should make sure their communication aligns with what their audience values and provides enough information to lead to action. McConnell emphasized the importance of developing skills in data visualization techniques and making sure the data translates into evidence of assessment and student learning. 

When thinking about next steps for AAC&U, McConnell mentioned that the organization has considered a lot of projects from a policy standpoint, such as the MSC and the VALUE initiative. However, it is time to include accrediting organizations more explicitly in the conversations about performance indicators. For instance, as accreditors are pushed to meet higher standards of accountability, perhaps AAC&U could partner with them to develop common expectations for collecting, reporting and using student learning assessments across the myriad regional and professional accreditation organizations. Because AAC&U is focused on quality in higher education and has a track record of developing successful performance rubrics, this could be a promising partnership.    

Throughout the conversation, McConnell stressed the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and building relationships with faculty across your own campus as well as other institutions. She emphasized the good work and contributions of JMU faculty, staff, and graduate students to assessment conversations in Virginia and nationally. McConnell highlighted the importance of building relationships with state, regional, and national organizations as we continue to improve our assessment practices. This advice resonated with Sanders and Gregg as they work towards becoming assessment and measurement professionals.

See the associated interview with JMU’s John Hathcoat: link

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