Beating the 'Best Student Fetish'

One professor's call for more outcomes assessment.


In a recent article at Inside Higher Ed, Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago and president of the Modern Language Association, questions why many in academia are so afraid of the outcomes assessment movement and why they think—incorrectly—that it means a lessening of their academic freedom.

Graff points out that many schools just want to admit the best students (he calls it the "Best Student Fetish") and don't seem that interested in determining whether they have learned anything at the university or not. He writes that:

I've become a believer in the potential of learning outcomes assessment, which challenges the elitism of the Best-Student Fetish by asking us to articulate what we expect our students to learn—all of them, not just the high-achieving few—and then holds us accountable for helping them learn it. Whereas the Best-Student Fetish asks who the great students are before we see them, outcomes assessment changes the question to what students can do as a result of seeing us. Furthermore, once we start asking whether our students are learning what we want them to learn, we realize pretty quickly that making this happen is necessarily a team effort, requiring us to think about our teaching not in isolation but in relation to that of our colleagues.

Graff's views clearly are not universal, and his article has drawn many comments from those who believe in assessment and from those who think it is harmful for various reasons.

One thoughtful comment on the need for doing outcomes assessment came from Don Langenberg, chancellor emeritus at University System of Maryland. He wrote that "of course, properly assessing learning is as challenging a task as acquiring the learning itself, and we're not yet very good at it. But that difficulty should not be used as an excuse to evade our responsibility to learn whether we actually do produce a product."

Of course, U.S. News supports the call for more assessment and accountability in higher education. In the end, the chief beneficiaries of this information will be the families who will be better able to determine how well colleges are doing at their main mission—educating students.