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The Middle States Commission on Higher Education

Accreditation: Toward Excellence in Outcomes: The Middle States Approach

Accreditation is increasing its focus on outcomes assessment in order to continue assuring the public of the quality of higher education.

This comes at a time when we see constant increases in the amount and types of knowledge, in the skills needed by graduates, and in the use of distributed learning and other new teaching methods. This applies to both campus-based and distance learning programs.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (representing such states as New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland) is collaborating with regional colleagues to reinforce the significance of outcomes in its own evaluation process, providing technical assistance to member institutions, and revising its standards for accreditation.

Reinforcing Outcomes in Evaluation

Regionally accredited colleges and universities complete a thorough self-examination, known as the self-study process, every ten years. The accrediting organization then appoints a team of volunteer peer evaluators to validate the self-study and ensure that the institution meets accreditation standards, and if necessary, make suggestions for improvement.

Since 1999, Middle States now includes an outcomes assessment resource person on each evaluation team. Their role is to evaluate an institution’s comprehensive outcomes assessment plan and assist other team members in framing questions in specific areas. However, in order to support this new initiative, additional work is needed to supplement and train competent evaluators for outcomes assessment experience.

In addition to training new evaluators, the Commission continues to provide its member institutions with technical assistance through symposia, conferences, and workshops on various topics of special interest to the Commission. The website, www.msache.org, is expanding to include best practices in assessment, and a new initiative is being developed on learning outcomes.

Assessment Review

Outcomes assessment has been explicit in Middle States standards for many decades, and in 2000, two conferences on outcomes assessment and accreditation offered institutions a broad-based, hands-on learning experience about how to conduct outcomes assessment.

Also during 2000, the Commission’s senior staff and consultants reviewed self-study reports from institutions that had recently completed their decennial evaluations and periodic review reports. They identified a number of exemplary comprehensive outcomes assessment plans, with criteria including: having a foundation in the institution’s mission, goals, and objectives; the support and collaboration of faculty and administration; a systematic and thorough use of quantitative and qualitative measures; assessment and evaluative approaches that lead to improvement; realistic goals and a timetable, supported by appropriate investment; and an evaluation of the assessment program.

Two examples of best practices in outcomes assessment include King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York.

The King’s College model of assessment focuses on: (a) clearly-defined faculty expectations for learning that students can understand; (b) explicit criteria that faculty and students can use to evaluate performance; (c) clear, honest, and timely feedback to students so they can concentrate less on past mistakes than on practical ways to improve performance; (d) strategies to enable students to connect learning in the Core with learning in the major; (e) close collaboration and a helping relationship between faculty and students to encourage on-going development; and (f) students understanding more of what and how they learn, so that they may become more involved in - and responsible for - their learning.

Nassau Community College published a manual to aid faculty in discovering ways to help students learn more effectively through discipline inquiries into teaching and learning in classrooms. The manual has five sections:

  1. Introduction and Historical Perspectives, which addresses the vision and evolution of assessment at the institution;
  2. The Conceptual Framework of Assessment, which addresses course-embedded assessment and the five steps of the goals-based assessment (GBA) paradigm (teaching goals, outcomes behaviors, assessment measurements, evaluating measurement results, and formulating modifications);
  3. Implementation and Campus Process, which addresses the three phases of classroom assessment (planning, implementing, and responding) and various roles of faculty, administrators, and committees at the institution;
  4. Classroom Assessment User’s Guide, which serves as a quick reference to methods and examples involved in the formulation of a classroom assessment;
  5. Resource Guide, which addresses the teaching goals inventory, outcomes goals of general education, and classroom assessment techniques.

Revising Standards

The Commission’s standards for accreditation, Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education (1994), are a guide for those institutions considering application for membership, those accepted as candidate institutions, and those accredited institutions engaged in self-review and peer evaluation. A steering committee and four task forces have developed proposed revisions to Characteristics, which is to be published in 2002.

The new edition will differ in both emphasis and format, with three particularly noteworthy principles. First, these standards consistently emphasize student learning and student learning outcomes. Second, the standards acknowledge the diversity of educational delivery systems that enable institutions to meet accreditation standards. Third, in order to achieve greater specificity, the standards are more clearly defined and illustrated, including examples of evidence that could substantiate an institution’s achievement of the standards.

The emphasis on student learning and student learning outcomes follows naturally from the Commission’s existing standards, as well as decades of attention to outcomes assessment through publications, workshops, and training sessions. Nonetheless, the Commission is mindful of the institutional effort and cultural change that the increased relative emphasis on student learning outcomes may require.

The Commission acknowledges that in order to meet these revised standards, institutions will be called upon to commit resources to the tasks of research and analysis, particularly as related to the assessment and improvement of teaching and learning. Concurrently, there is an understanding that in the changing environment of higher education, there is much that warrants further research and study.

These standards also affirm that the individual mission and goals of each institution remain the context within which these accreditation standards are applied during self-study and evaluation. The standards emphasize functions rather than specific structures, recognizing that there are many different models for educational excellence. The new format for the standards includes:

  • A brief statement of
    each standard;
  • A narrative text, ‘Context’, which addresses the topic of the standard, its context and values, provides guidance and definition, and leads to ‘Essential Elements', The narrative is not considered to be part of the actual standard;
  • ‘Essential Elements’ specify the particular characteristics or qualities that together constitute, comprise, and encompass the standard. Institutions and evaluators will use these required elements to demonstrate or determine compliance with the standard. Institutions will utilize the Essential Elements, along with the Standards, as a guide to their self-study processes;
  • ‘Supplemental Analysis and Documentation,’ which provides additional examples of work that might be carried out by an institution, relative to the particular accreditation standard.

Developing and implementing institution-wide outcomes assessment plans presents numerous challenges. For regional accrediting organizations, these include defining standards that are meaningful to institutions and relevant to their current contexts, framing questions about student learning, assisting institutions in understanding the meaning and value of assessment, and providing learning opportunities about how to develop and implement assessment plans.

These challenges are coupled by increasing pressures from the public, including the federal government, state departments of education, legislators, parents, and students. For institutions, challenges include creating a culture of assessment on campus, reallocating resources to support long-term assessment initiatives, overcoming faculty resistance, and resolving questions of administration and governance.

Middle States understands its own challenges in a rapidly changing landscape of higher education, while balancing the institutional context and pressures from various external constituents. Using a blend of traditional and innovative techniques and strategies, Middle States has embraced its role in the assessment movement and used it as an opportunity to educate its member institutions, improve its own policies and practices, and the manner in which it conducts business.


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