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Assessment at
Nassau Community College

By Sean Fanelli
President, Nassau Community College

Higher education has always engaged in assessment, though perhaps not the kind in which we are now involved. It is the very nature of classroom instruction to promote a free exchange of ideas about particular subjects and to examine them in a context of open and unfettered inquiry. The role of the professor — to present knowledge and information, and to help students understand that information and, ultimately, be able to think critically on their own — culminates in an assessment of how well students do in this process, an evaluation manifest by a grade at the end of a term. But that evaluative mark is never a complete measure. It cannot register the full extend of the outcomes of student learning, for these, we hope, reverberate in a variety of ways in students’ lives long after the semester ends. The current call for assessment throughout higher education appears to many in the academy, most especially faculty, to call into question the very efficacy of the professorial role, coming as it does at a time of burgeoning costs in higher education and concomitant fiscal constraints, if not crises. Overcoming faculty skepticism about assessment as a growing dimension of institutional accountability requires that the professorial role be at the heart of assessment activities. Meaningful assessment of the educational enterprise is not reflected in numbers alone. Successful assessment practices depend in large measure on faculty ownership.

Nassau Community College has responded to the assessment mandates of the State University of New York (SUNY) — of which Nassau is the largest of the 30 community colleges in the state university system, and of the Middle States Association, our accrediting agency — with a comprehensive assessment plan essentially designed and implemented by faculty. It is a plan that includes assessment of student learning outcomes in each course in the college’s curriculum as well as a system program review. From the outset of our assessment plan in 1989, the college recognized the centrality of faculty in determining the effectiveness of our curriculum, programs, and services at the college. Thus both course level assessment and program review are grounded in goals, objectives, and measures that are set by faculty in each academic department. Our assessment processes are recursive, enabling faculty to review outcomes and revise and improve courses and programs based on the results that each stage in the assessment process yields. Along with course level assessment and program review, the college has produced its own institutional “report card,” in which we have evaluated ourselves in terms of other comprehensive community colleges across the county of comparable size and institutional mission. As yet another assessment instrument, the report card gives us perspective on both our strengths and areas in which we can improve.

Assessment at Nassau Community College is an integral part of our system of shared governance. A standing committee of the Academic Senate, comprising representatives from each academic department, the academic administration, and the Office of Institutional Research, is charged with overseeing the course level assessment process. This process, as well as that of program review, is conducted by departmental assessment committees. Program review addresses extensive data provided by the Office of Institutional Research on enrollment trends, retention and graduation rates, and other aspects of entering student profiles. Academic administration also furnishes a written commentary on each departmentally produced program review. A recent component to program review mandated by SUNY is the addition of two outside reviewers who meet with all parties to the process and supply a written evaluation of the college’s program assessment. The complete program review is in turn sent to SUNY, still another new step in the assessment mandate.

Without question, at Nassau Community College we are doing assessment. We are pleased, too, that Middle States has recognized our assessment practices as a model, one that we share with colleagues from other campuses at our own annual assessment symposium. As a campuswide collective endeavor, assessment is working for us as our practices, emanating from the grassroots level up, provide for close examination and effective change in what we do in educating our students. We have concerns, however, about how our practices will comport with other kinds of assessment, such as a system-wide value-added exam currently being contemplated by SUNY. Similarly, we do not yet know how the program reviews we are sending to SUNY will figure in the larger university picture. Nevertheless, for the road ahead in assessment as a process of continuous improvement in our educational offerings, we are confident that we are headed in the right direction.