Assessing without Standards

First, if you haven’t already read Nicholas Schiller’s excellent post on assessment, go do that. I can wait.

Done? Great.

Let me just say how well he articulated how “assessment” can be a loaded term, and how our profession needs to be mindful of how we approach it. Nick paraphrased another colleague, who had said something to the effect of “There is the assessment you do to become a better teacher and there’s the assessment you do because the administration makes you.”

To me, the conflation of these two is a problem, which I put in a rather inelegant manner during last week’s #critlib chat. To be clear- I like assessment. I consider myself an “assessment guy.” I like reading, and reading about, learning outcomes and rubric design. I’m an academic instruction librarian, and I have no doubt that assessment has made me a better academic, a better instructor, and a better librarian. And I also think there is a place for using that assessment to demonstrate value to library stakeholders. By their nature, libraries are part of larger organizations (schools, municipalities, corporations, whatever), and letting those organizations know what we care about, and how we evaluate ourselves, is vital to our success.

Where things go off the rails is when we start letting our larger organizations dictate what it is we should care about, and in turn, what we should assess. This falls under the umbrella of “externalizing our curriculum” which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, and I think the solution here is the same. That is to say, librarians need to think long and hard about what we really care about, and speak up to our administrators and let them know what that is. Very few organizations are purely “top down,” and it’s worth sticking up for, and assessing, what we believe in. And, as Nick put it in his post, we need to “make sure that the value that we are demonstrating lines up with our values.”

In my case, I assess student learning. I think I owe it to my students to make sure they’re “getting it.” I don’t owe them because they paid tuition- learning is not a transaction and students are not customers. Instead, If I’m going to assume a position of authority in a classroom, and demand students’ time and attention, I want to make sure that it’s worth it for them. So I try my best to assess what I do and correct those things that aren’t working. At the same time, it’s also important that I am the one identifying the desired outcomes. I know what I want the students to learn, and I know how I want to assess it. And I would hope anyone who is teaching (as opposed to “training”) does the same.

Which brings us to the Framework. I’m really excited by how the document puts individual libraries and programs in charge of their own threshold concepts, and isn’t so prescribed regarding how to assess them. To me, the Framework is effectively daring each one of us to identify what we really care about, and not rely on standards to tell us what’s important. Don’t like one of the concepts they’ve listed? Don’t use it! Come up with new ones! This is an incredible opportunity for librarians to reflect on their practice and really grow as teachers. What has me worried is that the whole idea of “frames” is being misunderstood, and that some librarians are expecting a neo-standardization of information literacy, built around these new concepts identified by the revision committee. Unless we address these expectations, and really advocate for the motivations behind the Framework, I fear the revision will be a wasted opportunity, and we’ll end up assessing more and more of those things that have nothing to do with improving teaching and learning.