Trustees | Trusteeship

Administration’s Fight for Tougher Student Assessments Gets Lonelier

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  December 20, 2007 by Paul Basken

The Bush administration’s high-profile campaign for colleges to adopt tougher student-assessment standards may be dwindling “at least for now” to a one-person show by a die-hard adviser.

The federal panel charged with reviewing college accrediting agencies wrapped up its two-day semiannual session here on Wednesday with more members seen expressing concern about their travel itineraries than about student testing.

As several members departed early and others pressed their chairman for haste so they could catch flights, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or Naciqi, gave quick approvals to the six agencies remaining on its docket and adjourned before lunch, some three hours ahead of schedule.

That left one Naciqi member, Anne D. Neal, to wage her increasingly lonely battle for U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’s demand that colleges provide clear proof, through standardized tests or other objective measures, of their effects on students.

“When the public hears that an institution is accredited,” Ms. Neal told one agency chief, Sandra E. Elman, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, “it should not assume that it has reached a level of quality objectively set “it simply has met a level that the institution has defined for itself.”

Naciqi, during the two-day series of reviews for 17 accrediting agencies, endorsed the renewal applications of all but two. Those, the American Academy for Liberal Education and the Midwifery Education Accreditation Council, received deferrals that would grant them continued federal authority while they resolve some problem areas.

As she did on Tuesday, Ms. Neal pressed two of the nation’s largest regional accrediting agencies for details on how they know that their member colleges are making a meaningful contribution to the education of their students.

And as on Tuesday, most of her colleagues sat through her questions and then granted unanimous or near-unanimous approvals for five-year renewals of authority to both large accreditors. On Wednesday, that approval went to Ms. Elman’s Northwest Commission and to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Accreditation, once used by colleges as a voluntary system for self-improvement, has expanded into a process overseen by the federal government for purposes that include safeguarding federal student-aid programs. Colleges need approval by a federally recognized accrediting agency to ensure that their students remain eligible for federally backed education loans, and Naciqi makes recommendations to the secretary of education on which agencies deserve federal recognition.

After past Naciqi meetings, colleges and accreditors complained that the panel, whose 15 members are all appointed by the administration, was demanding student-assessment measures that had not been enacted by Congress.

Praise for Diverse Approaches

Naciqi’s gentler approach this week appeared driven largely by Ms. Spellings, who told the panel before Tuesday’s opening session that her repeated calls for greater accountability among colleges did not mean the federal government was dictating specific methods of assessing student learning.

“All I ask is that institutions be more clear about the benefits they offer to students,” Ms. Spellings told her advisory panel. The secretary said the current system allows a degree of diversity in American higher education “that makes us the envy of others around the globe.”

“We at the U.S. Department of Education have never, and would never, work to undermine that diversity or excellence,” she said.

The secretary’s base message on that point has been consistent, though her emphasis on allowing colleges to define the terms follows actions in Congress aimed at preventing her from doing anything that might expand federal oversight of college curricula. Protests from lawmakers prompted the secretary this summer to abandon an effort to rewrite departmental regulations governing accreditation.

The House of Representatives and Senate also have begun drafting higher-education-policy bills, which each contain a provision giving Congress, rather than the administration, the right to appoint most members of Naciqi. The secretary’s lighter touch with Naciqi in recent weeks has prompted at least one sponsor of such a provision, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, to reconsider the need for such an upheaval.

The House and Senate bills, which would amend and update the Higher Education Act, also contain language that would make clear that each college retains the chief authority for setting the criteria used for its own accreditation review. Accreditors, after protesting the language as handing too much power to the colleges, are close to an agreement with the colleges on revised language that they will jointly recommend to Congress, participants in the process said on Wednesday. The intent is to make clear that the authority remains with a combination of the colleges and their accreditors, not with the federal government.

New Tone From Panel and Accreditors

Naciqi “having received little call for tougher student assessments in either this week’s hearings or the advance reports on the applicants written by Education Department staff members” appeared to have gotten the message of conciliation from Ms. Spellings, said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

“What the committee did was consistent with what the secretary said in her speech,” said Ms. Eaton, whose association is the main umbrella group of accreditors.

The change in tone from past meetings might also reflect the qualities of this round of applications from accreditors, several of which emphasized student-assessment measures, Ms. Eaton said. “It may be that a certain amount of learning took place, given what’s happened in the last several meetings,” she said.

Ms. Elman helped defuse her interrogation by Ms. Neal by describing a voluntary program in which her organization’s member colleges will post to their Web sites more data on student achievement. “Our goal is to have greater public disclosure and greater transparency,” Ms. Elman said.

And some commission members moved to avert other areas of potential dispute. Chief among those was Naciqi’s insistence that the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools’ Higher Learning Commission, the nation’s largest accreditor, end its policy of jointly notifying both the department and the college when it has any suspicions of student-loan fraud at an institution. Accreditors generally feel an obligation to be forthright with the colleges, which are their paying members, while department officials contend that alerting a suspected violator could hamper the effectiveness of an investigation. Naciqi’s members agreed to produce reports for their next meeting, scheduled for the summer, that considers their options for handling that issue and some others.

And even Ms. Neal showed she was capable of being satisfied. “Your presentation was excellent and very thorough,” she said during Naciqi’s review of the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training. The procedure for that agency “which included the Education Department staff presentation of its written report, the accrediting agency’s rebuttal, and Naciqi’s unanimous vote of endorsement for a five-year renewal” took less than six minutes. As Naciqi members began fleeing for the airports and their holiday week appointments, other smaller accrediting groups received similarly quick approvals.

Despite the outbreak of comity, the debate over student assessment is likely to continue beyond this week’s Naciqi gathering, Ms. Eaton said. “This,” she said, “was one stop along the way in terms of something that’s going to go on for some time.”


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