Grading CMC

It's officially accreditation season. Claremont McKenna College is making final preparations for its WASC accreditation visit, scheduled to take place in June. WASC—the Western Association of Schools and Colleges—is a regional organization that evaluates colleges through a process called accreditation. This process assesses whether or not students are achieving the goals that a college sets for them.

Accreditation is time-consuming and costly to any university participating in it. Although it primarily affects department heads and college administrators, it can also affect individual students. At the Scripps Writing Center, for example, tutors were required to do at least 30 minutes of data entry each shift in preparation for WASC reports. Faith Heffernan, a sophomore writing tutor, described the work as “tedious.”

So why do schools participate in accreditation?

The real reason is practical. In order for degrees from any institutions to be recognized by employers, law schools or graduate programs, the institution must be accredited. Dean Garris, the Senior Associate Dean of Faculty at CMC, elaborated on the process a little more. WASC does not establish what students must learn; it allows CMC to set goals for student achievement. WASC then requires that the school devise a way of measuring whether or not students are meeting these goals. According to Garris, CMC has used grades and various student evaluations in the past to determine whether students are meeting learning objectives.

But in the last ten years, WASC has steered away from grade-based methods of evaluation. In response, CMC now reads a sampling of randomly selected senior theses. “What we’re finding is that most students demonstrate in their senior thesis that they have picked up the learning objectives the we’re looking for,” Garris said.

There seem to be major limitations with this approach to evaluating student achievement. First of all, CMC does not compare the senior thesis with work done by the student as a freshman. Without a comparison, what’s to say that students don’t have these skills on the first day of freshman year? Because there is no front-end test to evaluate how students begin their academic career, there is nothing to specifically prove that CMC is affecting student achievement.

Dean Garris pointed out that WASC does not require CMC to demonstrate that students have improved during their college years. Furthermore, he mentioned that demonstrating improvement is more difficult for a highly selective college like CMC. “You attract more students who have better critical thinking skills coming in," says Dean Garris. "A community college that gets students without these higher-level skills might show greater improvement over the course of four years.”

This sentiment highlights a greater problem in evaluating liberal arts colleges. If it is difficult for selective colleges to show student improvement or demonstrate that students are meeting goals of higher-level institutions, then is there even a good way of measuring student achievement in college?

Of course, it is important to evaluate schools and universities in some way. After all, federal tax dollars are going to these institutions, primarily in the form of financial aid.

But this isn’t elementary school anymore. Students do not have to be here. In fact, we're paying a lot of money, taking out loans, or using hard-earned scholarships to take classes offered at these institutions. And college-level work, especially in senior year, is very self-directed. Much of what a student accomplishes in college will be a result of their own work ethic, goals and personal projects, not the particular material that is taught in classrooms.

Professor Menefee-Libey, a politics professor and department chair at Pomona, expressed this frustration with the WASC accreditation process. When WASC asked how Pomona was sure that students were meeting the department’s goals this spring, the politics department gave two responses. “One was the simple answer—here are our goals and how we’re going to meet them," explains Menefee-Libey.  "The more complicated answer was that we’re skeptical that this approach to accountability is well-suited to the goals of the department.”

But there are problems with bringing up these problems during an accreditation interview.  Menefee-Libey reflected on the WASC visit, pointing out that it was “not a formative thing for WASC. There were many in the faculty who took this as an opportunity to be formative in the approach to accreditation. That was just strategically dumb.”

However, as inconvenient and nonsensical as the accreditation process might be, Dean Garris pointed out that there is some value in WASC accreditation. “I’ve had several conversations with faculty members that say, ‘We learn some things from this.’ That’s exactly what you’d hope would come out of this. Everyone should be interested in the quality of your institution and how to improve it.” Garris has a point. As long as WASC allows colleges to determine their own goals and assess how they’re meeting them, the accreditation process will have some benefit for schools, including liberal arts institutions.