Tests we don’t need, but probably ought to prepare for

The once and former president of Harvard, Derek Bok, published an interesting op ed piece in the Washington Post last week. Bok takes notice of the growing demands for assessment tests in higher education and neatly summarizes the reasons why they are a bad idea–at least in some disciplines.

I’m all for assessment in disciplines where there is an agreed upon body of knowledge needed for basic professional mastery. For example, I want my nurse to know that I have two kidneys and one liver or the engineer who designed the airplane I’m flying in how much weight that newly designed wing can stand.

But what should every English major know about poetry? What should every history major know about the past? What should every art major know about art?

It’s easy to dismiss the idea of such testing. But that would be much like the fabled ostrich with its head in the sand. Testing is so politically expedient that if we try to pretend it’s not going to happen, it will likely sneak from behind and bite us.

So, what should happen in the humanities? I’m with Bok on this one. Scholars need to–must, in fact–develop assessment tools that can demonstrate that our students have really learned something worth knowing. We have to come to clearer agreements on what that learning would look like and then show how, without multiple choice tests, we have assessed that learning over a trajectory of years. And, when we fail to meet our own benchmarks, we have to show what interventions we’ve implimented to address some lack of success among our students.

I think digital media offers great promise for helping with this assessment process. In future posts I’ll outline some of the ways I think that can happen. For now, I’ll go try to pull a few colleagues’ head out of the sand.