When professors at Arizona State University give exams next school year, they will be grading themselves as much as grading their students.
The university last week announced a major restructuring of its academic hierarchy, giving ASU’s 23 deans greater independence and responsibility for raising their colleges’ statures.
And, for the fi rst time, they will be checking to make sure the faculty is teaching effectively.
Recently, a movement pushing for accountability in higher education has gained strength. Universities, as a whole, have grudgingly moved toward creating tests to measure how much students are learning.
At ASU, however, deans and professors will be using an assortment of tools to assess themselves by August, when the fall semester begins.
“If we find ASU isn’t succeeding at educating students in ‘X,’ well, then we have to fi x it. And then we show that we fixed it,” said Provost Betty Capaldi, the university’s top academic official. “Otherwise, you’re putting your head under a bushel basket.”
ASU’s colleges are required to decide what information students should absorb from their courses and devise ways to determine how successfully instructors have taught the material. Capaldi said some deans have already begun presenting their ideas to her.
For decades, prospective students and their parents have had virtually no information about how well universities educate.
The most widely cited ranking of the nation’s universities — produced annually by U.S. News & World Report — relies heavily on an institution’s reputation among its peers. A university’s graduation rate counts for only 5 percent of its ranking, according to the magazine’s methodology.
U.S. News doesn’t include ASU on its list of best public universities.
“We’re trying to develop a whole system that could show the quality of our students on the outside, which I think is going to be very strong and will show that some of these ‘better schools’ don’t do that good of a job educating their students,” Capaldi said.
The effort comes in the wake of a report from the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which called for universities to start measuring how well they are teaching. The report has drawn criticism from academics who fear the government intends to impose standardized testing on universities similar to that required for K-12 under No Child Left Behind.
The testing movement is the “dawn of a Soviet-style bureaucracy,” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York, said at a gathering of higher education reporters last month.
But Duane Roen, an English professor and president of ASU’s Academic Senate, said universities can avoid that fate by making themselves accountable without the federal government’s intervention.
“It’s better if we hold ourselves accountable than to have someone from outside do that for us,” Roen said.
ASU is already finding that accountability can be painful.
For two years, the university has participated in a pilot program that tests students’ critical thinking skills and measures whether students improve during the first four years of their college career. The Collegiate Learning Assessment is administered at roughly 200 universities, with some participating anonymously.
Few of the institutions that acknowledge using the test make their results public. Richard Hersh, co-director of the assessment, has said he is lobbying the universities to release the data.
ASU and Northern Arizona University have already posted their results on their Web sites. For ASU, the scores are not flattering.
The university was labeled as “below expected” on how much students improved between their freshman and senior years.
NAU’s seniors scored better. The Flagstaff campus was rated “above expected.”
The University of Arizona does not appear to participate in the program.
The assessment uses a university’s average SAT scores to predict students’ performance on the critical thinking exam. A university’s rating is determined by how well a random sampling of students score compared to their predicted score.
While dozens of universities have embraced the assessment, it is a new and imperfect tool, said Steve Miller, associate director of ASU’s evaluation office. For one, it excludes many junior college transfers — about 10 percent of ASU’s enrollment — because they do not have SAT scores.
“I would consider this a beginning,” Miller said.
Most of the testing will be administered by the individual departments, Capaldi said. ASU also will include more traditional criteria — such as books and articles published, prizes and grant awards — to measure faculty performance.
At ASU Polytechnic, Roen said students will be required to build electronic portfolios of their coursework. Students can post documents, photographs and even video of their projects to prove mastery of the curriculum to their professors and potential employers.
Deans can take a sampling of the portfolios to demonstrate what students are learning.
“For a lot of things, a portfolio is a much better tool for demonstrating learning than a test is,” Roen said.
ASU colleges are expected to submit formal plans in the coming months.
Capaldi, who took over the provost position in August, said every dean will report to her office but has significant autonomy to choose what they want to measure.
Higher education has a long way to go to become transparent, Capaldi said, but ASU’s effort marks a significant improvement. When she began teaching, professors did not even receive evaluations.
“They said, ‘It’s private what goes on in my classroom,’ ” Capaldi said.