I have been meaning to write this post for a few weeks but just never got started. This this morning I read Moving from Critical Assessment to Assessment as Care by a valued friend and mentor, Veronica Arellano Douglas. I encourage you to read it. It is an important contribution to our thinking about assessment in higher education. The article is focused primarily on assessment in libraries and how it has come to embody value, to try desperately to prove we have value. When I read it I thought right away of the assessment experience I describe below and I understood even better why it makes me so uncomfortable.
At Keene State College, we have been trying to revamp our student first-year experience for the past few years. So, of course, we are ready to pilot some new initiatives this coming fall in the midst of also planning for the return of students during the COVID-19 pandemic. My colleagues from Academic Affairs and Student Affairs know that we want to create connections with our incoming students and to support them as they gain agency and advocate for themselves in all the ways they live and work in our community.
A new addition to the curriculum this fall will be a one-credit seminar held on Fridays. The student cohorts will come from a course students take in the fall that will be paired with one they take in the spring. The course structure is being developed by a group of faculty and staff. I am excited to be one of the facilitators of a seminar section. I know the course development group had been focusing on ensuring that students are aware of support structures on campus, that we provide opportunities for them to think about learning, about community. And I am sure that all of the events of the past few months will impact how we think about all of this.
We have had one brief introductory meeting about the course that included a template for the syllabus. There I saw course expectations broken down into percentages (e.g., attendance = 30%) although the course itself will be Pass/No Pass. My first question in our meeting was to ask how much discretion we had over the template. When asked what I had in mind, I answered that I was thinking of creating a sense of class community and expectations with my students, not delivering it to them.
This meeting is also where we learned about the YouScience test that incoming students are taking this summer before classes begin. Each of us was emailed access so we could create an account and take the test. One Saturday morning I sat down with my coffee and spent about an hour taking the test. The first thing I noticed was a question asking my gender giving me two choices (F/M). My campus has a well-known and supported Chosen First Name option so my immediate reaction was to wonder about the dissonance of supporting this option and the lack of options in this test.
Separate sections test vocabulary and mathematical sequences. The part that showed folded paper with a hole punched and asked me to select the correct picture of the paper unfolded was fun. After really trying on the first two, I literally just picked answers at random for the rest just get it over with. I’d love to know how I did. Other sections asked whether I like to talk to people at parties (depends) or my preference for free time activities. I had to place activities or objects in hierarchical order, group items sharing characteristics together, etc. It reminded me of a series of similar tests I took in 4th or 5th grade.
One day later I got an email saying my test results were ready and when I clicked on the link and logged in I got the message you saw in the title to this post. YouScience told me that I am a sequential thinker, and organizer, and have a “masterful” vocabulary. I am a “blended liaison,” meaning I work equally well as a team member of leader. I am a theoretical and also practical and detail-oriented thinker. And these characteristics are, by and large, pretty accurate (I think). Careers that are a high fit for me include audiologist, genetic counselor, psychologist, or business professor. A career that was listed as a fair fit is college or university administrator (I’ll just let that one sit there). I looked carefully through the entire, very long, page of career options and did not see librarian anywhere. Database administrator, web designer, archivist, but no librarian. And lots of types of professor but not Religious Studies (that’s where my academic training was before becoming a librarian). And I don’t remember seeing artist, musician, or actor anywhere (I am the child of a musician and a stage manager).
After giving myself a few hours to think about things I finally sat down to write to one of my colleagues on the coordinating team for the seminar. My email to her expressed concern about the gender identity question, but went on to ask about the value of this test, especially by sending it to students before they arrive on campus. It reinforces a mode of assessment that creates categories and tracks. I know the intent here was to help students identify their strengths. But I worry about the degree to which we may discourage them from true exploration, from trying something new, from discovering something or meeting someone that makes a difference. If we have to do this at all (and clearly we do not) how about having students take the test near the end of the semester and using it way to engage them in conversation about what these tests mean, what they say about us, and how they can/should be used. Wouldn’t that be a much more interesting experience for all of us?
So I am thinking about how I can create opportunities for us during our meeting times this fall, as we sit 6 feet apart from one another wearing masks, to talk about whether the test was accurate or not, and how we might think about the results and use them. In the meantime, I think I’ll just keep on being a librarian and a college administrator.