Making Sense of Accreditation


With WASC's activation of the 2002 Accreditation Standards last year, questions arose regarding the definitions of various accreditation and assessment terms as well as with the appropriate roles for faculty in the accreditation process. Though the Academic Senate was (and remains) opposed to the new standards for reasons that are enumerated in resolutions, papers and articles, the Senate has simultaneously accepted the challenge of helping the field to work constructively to achieve positive accreditation reports.

Among the Academic Senate's initial response to the standards, the paper, The 2002 Accreditation Standards: Implementation considers the emerging role of corporate accountability in education while setting out general guidelines for faculty with regards to assessment.

Our next paper on the subject of accreditation was approved at the Academic Senate's Spring 2005 Plenary in San Francisco: Working with the 2002 Accreditation Standards: The Faculty's Role. This publication is in keeping with the long-standing tradition of Senate papers that accompany substantial changes in WASC's approach to accreditation. As with those earlier papers, this one provides guidance and definitions to the field and discusses faculty involvement in the accreditation process, whether by participating in the self study process, serving on visiting teams or sitting on the Commission. Moreover, the paper addresses an important need in the field by providing definitions for accreditation terminology.

As local colleges and intersegmental groups began to work with the new standards, there was initial confusion about certain terms, particularly those dealing with student learning outcomes (SLOs) and objectives. It soon became apparent that various colleges and groups within our system were creating their own definitions, with a resultant sense of mounting confusion among educators. For example, some organizations decided to add SLOs to intersegmental course descriptors. Various local colleges were uncertain as to whether they should add SLOs or objectives to course outlines. In an attempt to rectify the problem, the Academic Senate examined accreditation and assessment terminology used by every accrediting region in the United States, plus the definitions utilized within the assessment profession and among various intersegmental and professional organizations.

Though the results of our research appear rather commonplace, the intended effect is that accreditation efforts within our courses, programs, institutions and at system and intersegmental levels will operate within a common set of discourse conventions. In addition, earlier this year, Kate Clark and I met with Executive Director Barbara Beno and Assistant Director Deborah Blue of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), a division of WASC, and we came to agreement on terms that are set out in "Working with the 2002 Accreditation Standards: The Faculty's Role." Our agreed definition of SLOs, for example, is:

Student Learning Outcomes refer to overarching specific observable characteristics developed by local faculty that allow them to determine or demonstrate evidence that learning has occurred as a result of a specific course, program, activity, or process.

Of particular importance are two points, neither of which is at odds with the ACCJC. Specifically, outcomes may be "observable," as opposed to strictly "measurable." In other words, our professional judgment retains its license to assess on factors that may not be readily quantifiable. The second point is that SLOs are locally determined and, hence, not appropriate for inclusion within intersegmental documents or for boiler plating in any manner whatsoever. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If faculty relinquish the right to create, manage and revise their own course outcomes, they slip closer to stasis standardization.

Finally, as to whether SLOs are used in course outlines, the Academic Senate leaves it to local decision-making but recommends caution. SLOs represent large concepts that may be more appropriate for the course description and the syllabus than as a list of expectations within the course outline. According to "Working with the 2002 Accreditation Standards: The Faculty's Role," the course outline "is a legal document that is developed locally, goes through a local approval process, and may be forwarded to the System Office for approval. Because SLOs have an ongoing relationship to local faculty dialogue and decision making, it is advisable that faculty consider carefully before they concretize SLOs into the COR." In addition, there is more than enough pressure on the course outline without it having to constantly be reopened for an ongoing review of course outcomes.

Why are such issues of importance? Because at the point where compliance with standardization or the right to determine our own outcomes and measures exists, is the very future of the teaching profession. Likewise, it is advisable that faculty involve themselves actively in all aspects of accreditation and thereby use their influence to strengthen support for quality educational choices and equitable access throughout our community college system.