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As Penn prepares to enter the beginning phases of its reaccreditation review for the 2013-14 academic year, similar efforts at peer schools may provide some insight into what’s to come.

For Penn — along with other institutions — the word on everyone’s mind is “assessment.”

Assessment, which refers to both assessment of student learning and assessment of institutional effectiveness, represents two of the 14 standards used by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in its decennial reaccreditation review.

Middle States — the organization that accredits Penn and other universities in the area — is one of eight regional accrediting bodies recognized by the United States Department of Education.

As part of the review process, Penn must undergo a two-year internal review known as a “self-study” which will focus on ways to improve undergraduate education.

According to administrators at Cornell and Villanova universities, as well as the University of Delaware — all schools that completed a Middle States reaccreditation self-study in the past year — student assessment was a major focus in their self-study reviews, and is part of a broader trend being pushed by education policymakers in the country.

“Even 10 years ago, assessment was just beginning to appear on people’s radar,” said 1998 Graduate School of Education graduate Heather Kelley, the director of the Office of Institutional Research at Delaware. “Now it’s a focus — not only the fact that you’re engaged in assessment activities but that you’re doing something with that information.”

Cornell’s Director of the Office of Institutional Research and Planning Marin Clarkberg said this is due to more pressure from the federal government amid the rise of for-profit and online higher education institutions.

“There is all this emphasis on testing and documenting that you really are teaching students and not just wasting federal dollars,” Clarkberg said.

As part of Cornell’s 2012 reaccreditation review, the school received a request from Middle States to follow up on its progress in implementing an “organized and sustainable” assessment process.

Similarly, Middle States requested that Penn document student assessment practices in the School of Arts and Sciences as part of its own upcoming self-study.

For their part, Penn administrators are taking note. One of the six working groups that will serve as the locus of Penn’s self-study will be dedicated to assessment of student learning, according to Provost Vince Price.

Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning in the Provost’s Office, said that each of Penn’s four undergraduate schools will be expected to assess student learning in the context of their own curriculums.

However, he cautioned against viewing assessment in the wrong light.

“A lot of people who talk about student learning talk about it in very narrow outcomes, as if outcomes in educational settings are similar to outcomes in business or healthcare settings,” Nelson said. “And that’s really not true at all.”

Michael Middaugh, a higher-education consultant and former chair of Middle States, added that the government has put increasing pressure on accreditors like Middle States to police institutions, something that has caused “real tension.”

Still, he said, the increasing focus on evaluation is a positive sign.

“The more faculty that are engaged with assessment results,” he said, “the more they become energized in the teaching that they’re doing.”

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