Article submitted by:
Joseph Castleberry, Ed.D.
President, Northwest University
AGWM Educator, 1988-2008
No issue plays a larger role in the accrediting of academic institutions and programs than assessment. Although schools employ many different approaches to assessment, all credible institutions take it very seriously, and no institution can ever hope to gain optimal results without a thorough and consistent program of assessment. More than any other practice, professionalism in higher education for ministry training requires the formation and execution of a rigorous and consistent plan of assessment.
A few years ago, as an academic dean trying to explain the phenomenon of assessment, I came to a remarkable insight while trying to translate the concept into Spanish. Most missionary educators around the world work across the lines of language, culture, and structures in terms of their educational task as well as their ministerial commitments, so the readers of ACLAME will appreciate the humor and depth of the insight I gained by having to translate the idea of assessment.
Often, when speakers of a second language attempt to explain a concept in their weaker language, they look for help in similar sounding words from their maternal language. In Spanish, such words often turn out to be “amigos falsos.” The Spanish word asesar—an easy false friend to latch onto—does not mean the same thing as the English word “assess.” They do not even share the same basic root. “Assess” comes from the Latin words “ad” and “sidere,” which form the idea of “sitting beside.” An assessor sits beside someone to help them get new insight into an issue or practice, or perhaps to assess a tax on the value of their property. The Spanish word asesar comes from the word “a,” which means “to” and the word “seso,” which means “brains.” In other words, to asesar something literally means to “add or restore brain to” it. Asesar means, “to restore sanity” to a person or process.
While the word asesar does not find common use in expressing the concept of assessment in Spanish, it does provide valuable insight. Assessment in academic efforts serves to look deeply into our processes and procedures and programs to make sure that we do not keep doing things that do no longer make sense. I once head a story told about a homemaker who always cut the ends off of her pot roasts. When someone asked her why she did so, she had no better answer than, “because my mother always did it.” Curious f0r the first time about why her mother would have done so, she called her and asked why she had always cut off the ends. Her mother explained that she had done it because her pot was too small for the roasts to fit into without cutting off the ends.
When educational practices go unchallenged from year to year, they will inevitably lose their effectiveness and optimal outcomes. Many things continue for no better reason than the fact that they have always been done that way. I remember when Albert Gore ran for president in 2000 against George W. Bush, he made a statement that became very popular: “the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.” The purpose of assessment is to return the sanity to our practices by subjecting them to constant evaluation and purposeful change. When we do things in new ways, we get new results. New practices and new results can lead to renewed, revived institutions.
The Professional Missionary Educator
Most missionary educators engage in teaching on a part-time basis. As a result, they often feel that teaching their classes takes up all the time and energy they have to invest in education. Accordingly, we can easily fall into a fairly rote process of doing what our own professors did, of teaching the same material over and over again, and accepting whatever results we can obtain. Although that description sounds harsh, I have to confess that it describes my own early practice pretty accurately. I did not have any formal training in the art of teaching when I went into missions, despite having had amazing professors as a student. I knew a lot, and I loved to share it, but I did not have any guidance or training in the formal processes that ensure quality in teaching. I just did the best I knew how to do.
Teachers like me depend on administrators to help us make the most of our efforts. No teacher wants to be ineffective, and most want to achieve the best impact possible from the efforts they invest in training the next generation of ministers and leaders. One of the essential characteristics of a professional administrator involves careful planning and clear procedures to empower everyone to achieve excellent results. No missionary educator engages in education for the purpose of education—ars gratia artis. We educate to achieve the optimal proclamation of the Gospel, the best spiritual formation and deployment of our disciples, and the maximum planting of the church for the holistic service of God’s people. That goal requires the best educational efforts we can muster and deserves the highest professionalism.
Creating an Assessment Plan
Assessment need not involve a cumbersome process in order to yield transformational results. In some ways, the simpler the process is, the more immediate the results will be. Effective assessment involves the use of a cyclical process that involves planning, collecting of data, interpretation of data, and applications of findings to improve practice. The following graphic illustrates the assessment cycle. After each year’s activities are accomplished, the cycle continues anew.
Schools that do not have an established process of assessment might choose the following simple steps to plan for one.
1. Create an assessment committee and place three meetings on the yearly or semester calendar—one at the beginning of the year and two toward the end. The committee can be large or small, depending on the size and complexity of the school’s operations.
2. During the first meeting of the Assessment Committee, decide what elements of the school’s practices will receive attention that year or semester. For example, categories of analysis might include
- Teacher performance
- Student achievement
- Financial management
- Record keeping
- Ministry performance of alumni
The committee may decide that they cannot assess every issue involved in the school’s work in every year, but all aspects of the school should be assessed at least once every three years. Some items, such as teacher performance and finances, must be evaluated at least once per year.
3. Decide what data you will collect to evaluate your practices. For each of the categories of analysis, make plans in advance for how you will collect data. For example:
- Teacher performance: Collect class evaluations for each course taught, using a Likert scale of 1-5 to allow students to judge the performance of their teachers anonymously and allowing spaces for open-ended comments. Require teachers to write a self-evaluation based on their responses to student input and setting goals for how they will address areas where they may need improvement.
- Student achievement: Keep a careful record of student grades. This data will allow for evaluation of their learning, as well as for teacher effectiveness.
- Financial management: Keep careful records of all financial transactions and submit the bookkeeping to an annual professional audit. If funds are scarce, find an accountant who will volunteer services. Keep records of complaints from customers and creditors and what the staff did to address the complaints.
- Record keeping. Plan in advance how your school will keep academic records, how they will be verified, and how they will be backed up in case of a computer failure.
- Enrollment: Plan what activities the school will carry out to attract new students
- Ministry performance of alumni: Decide how the school will follow up with alumni to track their success, whether through surveys, phone calls, personal visits, or the like.
- Student satisfaction: Take a survey or conduct a “town meeting” or focus groups allowing students to express their views on various aspects of their experience at the school.
Collecting the Data
Particular administrators of the school should be responsible for the collection of data for the assessment process. In the system described above, the academic dean will need to collect student evaluations and deliver aggregated tallies of them to faculty members. Do not show faculty members the original sheets, but rather a report showing the average number grade from 1-5 for each question and the open comments. Faculty members may recognize handwriting and feel badly toward particular students, destroying the confidentiality of the process and creating personal problems. Faculty members should then be directed to write a self-evaluation based on student feedback and their own evaluation of their work. Similarly, previously named administrators—whether part-time or not—should gather data for financial management, enrollment, record keeping, ministry performance, and other categories of evaluation.
Interpreting the Data
Each of the responsible administrators should analyze the data they have collected in their areas and bring a report to the meeting that has been set to discuss the results. For academic deans, a meeting with each faculty member to discuss their self-evaluations should precede the group meeting. Similarly, other administrators should meet with the relevant personnel involved in collecting and preserving the data for their area of analysis. When the data from assessment has been thoroughly considered in committee, make a report of the findings and take time for everyone to consider ways of improving practice.
In a small school, the temptation will always exist for one person to try to do everything. That decision will rob others of an opportunity for significant service and personal development. Administrators should try to share the load as broadly as possible to obtain the best results and to avoid taking on too much risk of failure in things they are not good at.
Within a short time of coming to findings about what processes need to be changed, the assessment committee should come together to decide what changes they need to make and how they will implement them. A final assessment report for the year should be compiled and kept in the school’s records. At the next meeting, the committee will make plans for what aspects of the school’s performance they will assess in the upcoming year. If the school has a board of directors, reports to the board will include and reflect the reports written by the Assessment Committee.
Schools require a formal process of assessment in order not to perpetuate ineffective practices. No matter how small a school may be, or how few its personnel, it can design assessment practices that will improve its performance. Assessment should be a cyclical process of planning, gathering data, interpreting the data, and making changes. When Bible schools do these simple things, we will increase the probability of healthy and sane contexts for the training of future ministers.