Moving Learning Forward: Early History of the CUNY Assessment Council

The trend towards learning outcomes assessment as a practice in higher education emerged in the United States in the 1990s. The working premise was that a clear and explicit articulation of what students were expected to “know and be able to do” and an accompanying process to discern that learning would improve student success.  My first exposure to academic assessment was when I served as Chair of the History Department at Clarke College (later Clarke University).  My experiences as a professor and, later, division chair who utilized assessment, led to my hiring as the first assessment director at Brooklyn College in the fall of 2006.

At the time, student outcomes assessment was somewhat new at CUNY.  Our regional accreditor, Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), was placing a greater emphasis on assessment of student learning and trying to raise its standards to be more in line with the country’s other regional accreditors. The accreditors’ actions were motivated to fend off a movement, promoted by then U.S Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, to centralize higher education accreditation directly under the federal government.

While at Brooklyn I was fortunate to have a part-time administrative assistant, Ms. Helen Johnson, and I also enjoyed a professional rapport with the Provost’s office, and, for a time, the Office of the President. My assistant and I contacted all of the CUNY colleges to identify those individuals, if any, who were handling Student Learning Outcome (SLO) assessment on their campuses.  Many CUNY colleges had their Offices of Institutional Research performing assessment of SLOs; a few others colleges had individuals working on it as part of their overall jobs. I soon met Drs. Anita Alting and Virginia Moreno, assessment directors at City College and John Jay.  We were, in effect, members of the first cohort of fulltime assessment directors at CUNY. 

I thought it would be useful for those extorting the virtues of Student Learning Assessment (SLA) across CUNY to meet, share information and support one another as support on many campuses of the University was lacking and non-existent in some.  The Graduate Center offered space, and our first meeting took place in late September 2007. People representing eleven CUNY institutions came to the meeting. The discussions centered around two areas. The first identified a few common themes around the assessment of student learning at the various CUNY colleges. These included the need to raise awareness on the importance of assessing student learning; communicating the distinction between program, course, and institutional levels; the roles of accountability and improvement in the teaching/learning matrix; general education assessment; our relationship, or lack of relationship, to CUNY Central; and the role of Middle States Accreditation on our professional activities. 

The second area was how to go about seeking recognition CUNY as an official “council.”  Several of us worked at colleges where we felt ignored and received little backing. The idea of a council, a group of similar professionals engaged in activities not clearly visible to student, faculty or even other staff, was a first step towards legitimacy and, who knows, even a little influence. As one Council member noted when he broached the topic of course assessment with the chair of a large department, “Assessment is just another flash in the pan.  It’ll soon sizzle and you’ll be looking for another job.”  The group delegated me to seek the required sponsorship from CUNY Academic Affairs.  I wrote to the University Provost’s office with the request, hoping that the need for a place at the CUNY table of “important matters” would offer us a chair to the banquet.  Although we received approval for a council, it was placed under the sponsorship of the University Office of Institutional Research (OIRA) and meetings were held in the CUNY IR offices on 57th Street.  This would get us a regular room somewhere to meet, and, as it turned out, an occasional continental breakfast. 

At subsequent meetings of the new Council, in 2007-2008, we formalized the structure.  I was elected chair, as the whole thing had been my idea initially, and no good deed goes unpunished as some of us were learning. We decided to meet on the 2nd Friday of the month from 10 am to 12:30 pm.  The newly expanded CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment offered to set up a listserv for the group and provide other logistical support.  We were on our way, sort of.

At first, the Council was simply a forum for the discussion of the challenges we faced in advancing the need for assessment and the various processes for capturing data.  There were far more challenges than successes as evidenced by the anecdotes we swapped and the methods we shared for tiptoeing around certain minefields and getting faculty and leadership “to buy in.”  At times it seemed we were given a heavier task than we initially thought.  Buried deeply in each job description for assessment director or manager was an unstated, unwritten job qualification: Must be able to convince faculty, staff, and leadership of the importance of assessment and to motivate them to buy in.  Buy in . . . an infinitive phrase that soon became ubiquitous in our discussions, in the emerging literature of assessment, and in the burgeoning lectures and conferences devoted to assessment.   Also discussed (and still to this day) were the increasing demands of MSCHE, and, a few years later, the new challenge of CUNY Pathways initiative, which served as the University’s answer to the noted lapses in our students’ General Education skills and the difficulties many students experienced in transferring, especially from community college to a senior college. Pathways proved to be a hard sell to the campuses. Some campus faculty councils declared a moratorium on Pathways; some ignored it; some cursed but embraced it.  We in assessment watched the battle from the sidelines.  Today it seems to have been finally accepted by all of CUNY.

In the years that followed, the Council undertook a variety of activities to advance awareness of good practices in the assessment of student learning and, eventually, institutional effectiveness at the University.  Traditionally, the IR and the Testing Councils held an annual daylong joint retreat. Eventually, the Assessment Council was added to form a triumvirate and was represented on the planning group. In subsequent years, the testing council went its own way; however, the Annual Joint Retreat of the IR and Assessment Councils proved valuable, well attended and continues to thrive to this day.

The most innovative and impactful practice in the period from 2009-2014 was the Council’s  program of university-wide presentations.  Some were panels, some were demonstrations of best practices, some were workshops.  All fourteen of the presentations we put on at various venues were offered in this five-year period. At the time, members of the Council could easily get free space at their respective colleges. CUNY supplied refreshments and the events were held from 9-12 on Fridays, the idea being that with few classes held on Fridays faculty could attend.  The first was held at McCauley Honors College on September 25, 2009. It dealt with the basics of assessment and the design of assessment plans. Thirteen other presentations followed (often two per semester) on a variety of topics: assessment of General Education, assessment in specific disciplines, assessment in support areas such as advising and tutoring, and the tools of assessment—rubrics, templates, logic models, emerging software.

We struggled with the ongoing issue of trying to get more faculty to attend events. In the beginning we had held the both our meetings and our events on Fridays in the (somewhat naïve) hope that since few fulltime faculty taught on Fridays they would be free to attend. This did not happen.  Only a small percentage of the attendees over the years were faculty, and these were usually junior and/or untenured. We tried giving breakfast, giving lunch, even changing the time and day of our events, but in the end still faced the reality of diminishing audience and empty seats.

In the fall of 2014, we discontinued the presentations.  New topics were getting difficult to come up with and the Council was uncertain about starting to repeat them, especially since approximately 400 different individuals had attended at least one of the events over the years and many had attended more than one. In addition, the work involved was beginning to take a toll on the Council. A number of colleges were approaching reviews by Middle States and needed their assessment people to direct their energies to their campuses. Additionally, when I moved from Brooklyn College to College of Staten Island in 2014 we no longer had the services of Helen Johnson, who had done considerable work in maintaining our large attendee email list.                              

In recent years, changes in the landscape of accreditation and curriculum have revived the Council’s importance and set it in new directions.  Middle States has broadened and deepened its emphasis on assessment of student learning, student services, and institutional effectiveness. This initiative became more pronounced with the revision of Middle States standards and requirements, all of which called for in-depth assessment.  CUNY institutions began to experience these stricter mandates in their Middle States reviews and visits, a few to the point of being placed on warning.  In addition, with the arrival of the Pathways General Education, questions of how well our students are learning basic skills and knowledge moved to the forefront.  Further, the assessment of learning and effectiveness of a college’s “support units” has become crucial to successful accreditation.

These latest challenges have revitalized the Council. More professionals working on these issues have joined the Council. New cohorts assumed leadership roles offering new ideas and new energies while providing continuity to the Council’s mission.  We now meet at CUNY headquarters. The Council is currently undertaking its most ambitious, expansive projects: An online modular course, Assessment 101, and a newsletter, Assess@CUNY, both designed to include all of CUNY’s colleges. The Assessment Council continues to support and to lead CUNY efforts to meet the increasing expectations for assessment of student learning, and help to CUNY successfully educate underserved urban students.  We rarely have continental breakfasts these days, but we do have coffee at Council, and work awaits us.


Michael J. Anderson is the Director of Academic Assessment at College of Staten Island, CUNY.

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