Graphic from Mid-Term Self-Assessment Report on Canada's Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16
I recently became the representative for the Michigan Association of Media in Education (MAME) on the Assessment for Learning Network (ALN), a function of the Michigan Assessment Consortium. As I participate in the ALN learning opportunities, I have reviewed the literature and given much thought to the issues of assessment in public and higher education and in nonprofit and public institutions, even for-profit organizations. This post is to capture some of my thinking.
What is our future? Where do we need to go? Why do we want to go there and not that other place? Who cares where we go? How will it help us to go there? Questions like these motivate most organizations to “assess.” The word “assess” derives from the medieval courts. Beside the judge sat a functionary who calculated the value of the judgement - as in a tax, or a fine, a monetary value. In Anglo-French assesser, from the Latin assessus “a sitting by.” So, assessment was originally about giving council as to value. Every and each situation for judgement was individualized.
The concept of assessment in its most objective and static form has in recent years migrated out of the scientific realm and been applied to education and nonprofit public institutions, which by nature continually change to meet the needs of the constituents. Objective assessments in education are inherently political and economically motivated. The objectivity is entirely arbitrary, meant to compel compliance and often formulated without input from the stakeholders. Proponents of objective assessment in education reduce organizations and processes to what I think of as “Drivers Tests”; if you know this set of information and respond in prescribed ways - you pass. In other words, there is one correct answer. Any organization that serves the public interest cannot be reduced to a “Driver’s Test,” because the needs of the stakeholders are constantly shifting. The challenge for change leadership is to create assessment and improvement processes that flex to meet the needs of the time and place, taking into consideration input from the people affected.
To comply or not to comply? Compliance-based assessments, like state educational testing or Advanced Placement tests often incorporate cut scores that change every year. The standard is a moving target, sliding along a bell curve that in statistical analysis is referred to as the normal distribution. Think about this for a moment. The ranking of excellence in high schools across the United States is based on the number of AP courses taught in that school, while AP changes the sliding scale of the number that connotes excellence every year. Or, a state requires all k-12 students to take the state objective assessment and schools are judged by “growth” compared to last year, while the state moves the scale for acceptable growth every year. The claim is that ALL schools are judged on the same objective measure is dangerous. It is inaccurate and unproductive to rank schools by the Driver’s Test when every community and every student population has different needs and requirements; the idea of excellence or growth is dynamic and individual.
In the larger picture, what is being assessed changes as circumstances change. Therefore, any useful assessment must be a continuous individualized process and needs to be built into the structure of normal work and process rather than a one time snapshot.
Stakeholders themselves cannot be viewed as static or large undifferentiated groups. For example, the needs of a large university Medical School Library will differ widely from the needs of the large university Business School Library. Complex shifting of groups and users, boundaries and factions are inevitable. How then do we assess and meet the kaleidoscope of needs for our constituents.
Getting change done. Institutions and organizations inevitably develop formal hierarchies and informal hierarchies. Innovation requires innovative thinking at every level. Therefore, the formal leaders need to cultivate shared leadership and foster an ethos that encourages, models and rewards for continual assessment and problem-solving by everyone. “Objective Assessment” assumes that there is an organization with hard impermeable boundaries, when for most organizations the opposite is true. An innovative organization thrives when its people contact, meet with and learn from others beyond its boundaries. Consider, for example, professional organizations, organizations serving the same population, other departments within a university setting, international thinkers and doers. Leaders in the formal hierarchy should model and encourage interaction beyond the boundaries as a spark to innovation. Another component of “getting it done” is fostering a culture of input from your stakeholders. Change does not happen in isolation. C. Robert Maxfield, former superintendent in Farmington, MI and mentor for my internship in the superintendency, used to hand out a card to every staff member at the annual kick-off picnic. The “I blew it!” card gave every person at every level a free pass to innovate and try new strategies for student success and fail without criticism from their peers or administrators. I have found the process effective to collectively assess, improve and project the future needs of the organization through shared leadership and cycles of individualized assessment.
Facing tough realities together. Continual assessment and improvement can seem exhausting because they bring us up against the sometimes harsh realities of change. I think about AI and how it has created major efficiencies for libraries of all sorts. Yet, with AI improvements come a shrinking workforce in some libraries. One result has been issues of isolation of specialized librarians from the faculty they serve, The repercussion being low morale from lack of human contact. As we maintain the cycle of assess/improve we also need to plan to cushion change for real people and support the emotional/professional needs of staff as things change. Libraries are hardly alone in facing these issues of low morale. Organizations like TED model the value of stakeholder input to coax out change strategies that keep thier people involved in innovation.
Depending on the size of your organization, the tracking of the assess/improve cycles and leading consistent change in every department can be stressful. In the next post, I will discuss practical tracking techniques that can be useful by both formal and informal leaders.