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Berkeleyan

Spotlight on undergraduate outcomes
Academic Senate hears update on plans to enhance goal-setting, data gathering, and reporting on student experience

| 29 November 2006

Ways to better evaluate the education that Berkeley provides its undergraduates took center stage at the fall meeting of the campus Academic Senate on Nov. 14. Reporting on the findings of the Undergraduate Outcomes Task Force, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Christina Maslach told Senate members that the campus currently has no "direct and easy way" to determine what it is doing well and what less well vis a vis its undergraduates, or how accurately its admissions process is identifying those students most likely to thrive on campus and beyond.

"Having a sense of what our goals are, and figuring out how well we're meeting them" is something the campus should be doing more systematically, Maslach said. She and Professor of Education David Stern co-chaired the faculty-administration task force charged in April 2005 with studying how the campus measures and reports undergraduate outcomes and recommending strategies for improvement. Its final report, released in September, was recently posted online by the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost (evcp.chance.berkeley.edu), which commissioned the study.

The 16-page report finds that although the Berkeley campus, "by a variety of standard indicators, such as persistence and graduation rates, is doing extremely well," it still needs to improve its capacity "to ask more sophisticated questions about outcomes" all the way from the admissions process through students' undergraduate years and into the alumni experience. One valuable tool for gathering and analyzing student feedback on academics, the admissions processes, and extracurricular student life is the systemwide University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES), administered annually at Berkeley.

But "it turns out we need a post-baccalaureate survey" as well, Maslach noted. "If you want to know where Berkeley undergraduates have gone on to - how many are working, how many are in education, how many are running companies, how many are in government - we don't know. To be able to talk to them as alumni would be invaluable."

The task force recommended that assessment of undergraduate-student outcomes be incorporated systematically into academic-program review. Some departments have expressed "interest and willingness," Maslach said, though they lack the resources to do so. Consequently, the Undergraduate Division is planning to help three departments, on a pilot basis, to conduct strategic planning for their undergraduate offerings, incorporating clearly defined educational objectives and assessment mechanisms into their plans. The task force also called for enhanced data collection, data integration, tracking, and reporting related to student outcomes.

Maslach noted that while Berkeley's Undergraduate Outcomes Task Force was conducting its study, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education - a national panel appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings - was preparing a major report of its own. Chaired by accountability-through-testing advocate Charles Miller, former chair of the University of Texas Board of Regents, the commission noted "a remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students."

The federal report (ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports.html) fell short of calling for mandatory testing leading to an institution-by-institution report card - on the model established for K-12 schools by the No Child Left Behind Act. Nor did it advocate, as one of its early discussion papers did, dismantling the current system of accreditation (a peer-review system relying on six regional accrediting organizations to oversee some 3,000 institutions) in favor of a single national accreditation body. It did, however, urge colleges and universities to voluntarily measure and report "meaningful student outcomes," called for creation of a federal "unit-record system" to collect data on individual college students' educational progress, and remarked on significant shortcomings, worthy of "transformation," in the higher-education accreditation system.

There's "a lot of value in having standards for what you're trying to achieve with students, and a way to demonstrate that you've achieved those standards. All accreditation in higher education has been moving in this direction" for some time, Maslach said. What would prove "troubling," however, would be the establishment of a national test as a means to compare higher-education institutions, she added.

To establish proactively the campus's standards and measurement tools, Maslach said, is "taking the ground and saying 'this is how we need to look at this.'" She believes that research institutions, as well as private colleges and universities, have been "slower to recognize this as a problem" they need to pay attention to, although they "are beginning to see the writing on the wall." Just to "hope that maybe with the November elections we won't have to worry about it anymore- I don't think so. There's enough bipartisan support in Congress around this issue that I think it will continue."

Other Senate business

The divisional meeting also included overviews from Chancellor Birgeneau and Academic Senate chair William Drummond on significant campus developments this fall. The latter noted that "we're living in a greatly more exposed environment these days," referring to measures purportedly designed to enhance "transparency" - namely public release of all UC salaries to campus libraries and the posting online of grade distributions (prompted by the threat of a lawsuit from the online service Pick-A-Prof if this information was not released). The senate has urged that the latter posting at least be done via a campus website.

"It made no sense to require our students to go to a for-profit in order to get information about Cal," Drummond said. This recommendation "may have had a positive outcome," he added, as Vice Provost Maslach's office has taken preliminary steps to create a robust website that, along with grade distributions, would offer a forum for comment and interaction between instructors and students, and other useful features.

In a report from the Committee on Academic Planning and Resource Allocation (CAPRA), Professor Emeritus Calvin Moore summarized that committee's concerns about intercollegiate athletics, whose annual debt reached $13 million in 2004-05 - "in direct competition with other campus needs," Moore said. "CAPRA really came to the conclusion, shared by others, that this is not sustainable; we have to find a way to turn this ship around."

The committee recommended that intercollegiate athletics be required to be self-supporting in 10 years' time - and, said Moore, "campus administration has essentially accepted this recommendation as a plan."