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Ensuring Educational Quality: Assessment in Five Levels

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

Every college and university has a mission, and every program and course has intended outcomes, but without assessment, all of these things are merely good intentions. Assessment is essential in determining how effective an institution is at delivering its mission, as well as its program and course outcomes. All stakeholders- students, instructors, and administration, benefit from the data that assessment provides. This data is derived from two types of assessment that serve different purposes: formative and summative.

Formative assessment occurs during the learning process and is used to monitor teaching and learning activities and make modifications for improvement.

Summative assessment occurs after the learning process and is used to measure how well students meet learning objectives and provide insight into instructional tools and curriculum design effectiveness.

In Levels of Assessment: From the Student to the Institution, Ross Miller and Andrea Leskes offer a holistic approach to assessing student learning. Their five distinct levels of assessment in higher education integrate formative and summative assessment practices at multiple levels to ensure educational quality.

Level 1 – Assessing individual student learning within courses

The first level is the assessment of individual student learning in a course, where learning is measured as the student progresses through the course. At this level, formative and summative assessment tools need to provide data that identifies student strengths and weaknesses and guides progress with recommendations for improvement. This data is helpful for both the students and the institution. Miller and Leskes recommend a de-emphasis on grades as assessment, as they often give little information to students about actionable strategies for development. A common approach to this level is "pre/post test" assessment, which provides data on student knowledge before and after taking the course.

Level 2 – Assessing individual student learning across courses

The second level is the assessment of individual student learning across courses, which measures student development as they progress through their program of study. The data collected at this level provide students with evidence of their development through the program and actionable feedback for growth over time. Administrative and faculty stakeholders also gain valuable information about how well students achieve program objectives. Additionally, the data collected at this level is used to improve educational quality by addressing development gaps.

Miller and Leske suggest implementing formative and summative assessments aimed at answering the following three questions to drive the meaningful collection of data at this level:

  1. Has the student's work improved and/or met the standards during the program or since college admission?

  2. How well has the student achieved the disciplinary outcomes of the major program?

  3. How well has the student attained the institution's general learning outcomes across four years?

Level 3 – Assessing Courses

The third level of assessment evaluates the effectiveness of courses in helping students meet learning objectives and achieve expected levels of knowledge and skills proficiencies to move into future courses successfully. Course assessment allows for the identification of areas of the curriculum where modification is needed to improve educational relevance and ensure that the course fits into a logical pathway of learning. This level should also be comprised of formative and summative assessments.

Level 4 – Assessing Programs

The fourth level of assessment focuses on programs, specifically the alignment between curriculum designs and learning objectives. The data collected at this level of assessment demonstrates how well a program prepares students to meet learning objectives and further highlights educational gaps within the curriculum.

The effective assessment of programs requires data collection at the entry, midpoint, and end of the program. This assessment level is comprised chiefly of summative assessments and should be implemented at the entry, midpoint, and end of the program. The assessment data should answer the following six questions:

  1. Do the program's courses, individually and collectively, contribute to its outcomes as planned?

  2. How well does the program fulfill its purposes in the entire curriculum?

  3. How well do the program's sub-categories contribute to the overall purposes?

  4. Does the program's design resonate with its expected outcomes?

  5. Are the courses organized coherently to allow for cumulative learning?

  6. Does the program advance institution-wide goals as planned?

Level 5 – Assessing the Institution

The fifth level of assessment measures institutional effectiveness in educating students and preparing them for success after graduation.

Institution-level assessments are used for curriculum improvement and to meet both internal and external requirements for educational quality. The loop between assessment data, analysis, and resulting improvement efforts should be closed at this final level.

We all believe in the various missions of the institutions we serve and the course and program outcomes of the classes we teach. Assessment allows us to hold ourselves to our institutional promises by taking stock of where we are delivering and where we need to improve. The five levels approach creates a holistic picture with targeted data collection that reveals gaps in specific areas, allowing for equally-targeted improvements where they are needed most.

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