A Brief History of Formal, State-Mandated Assessment

One might date the beginning of formal, state-mandated assessment in the State of Washington in 1987 with the Higher Educational Coordinating Board master plan. Campus wide implementation of formal assessment at the University of Washington began in the summer of 1989 when the state legislature earmarked $400,000 to be used for doing assessment during the 1989-91 biennium. Each of the other public baccalaureate institutions received the same amount, as did the State Board for Community College Education. Each of the state's community colleges was subsequently allocated $50,000.1

In its general usage, assessment is a term whose meaning is very similar to evaluation.2 We use the term here somewhat more restrictively as the systematic gathering, interpretation, and use of information about student cognitive, behavioral and attitudinal outcomes for purposes of improvement. As such, it is clear that assessment was not newly introduced to UW in 1989. Rather, the Office of Educational Assessment and its predecessors, the Bureau of Testing, the Office of Student Ratings, and Institutional Educational Research, had already enjoyed a long and distinguished history. Students have been rating the quality of their classes and instructors since the 1920's, and graduates have been systematically surveyed to determine their satisfaction and job placements since 1978. Further, all academic programs have undergone serious periodic program review and many have undergone periodic reaccreditation by external agencies. And, of course, the learning of students in courses was evaluated via tests, papers, homework assignments, etc. Finally, faculty exhibited their research interests and expertise by conducting research in their classrooms to improve their teaching.

This is not to suggest that the funded state assessment mandate made no difference. It has made an enormous difference in the extent and impact of assessment and in the culture of the institution. It was not, however, created from whole cloth. It had a solid base upon which to work.

In 1987 the Higher Educational Coordinating Board master plan specified:

During 1987-88 and 1988-89 institutions will conduct pilot studies to assess the usefulness and validity of nationally normed tests of:

  • communication
  • computation
  • critical thinking

that will be administered in the last term of the sophomore year.

A committee of institutional personnel and board staff will make a recommendation on the advisability of requiring such a test.

If the pilot test of this kind proves appropriate, there will be a recommendation that it be adopted; if a test of this kind is not appropriate, the Board will look for an alternative to provide a systematic evaluation of institutional performance.

An inter-institutional task force was named for both the baccalaureate and the community colleges, and the two groups worked in close harmony to conduct extensive empirical research involving both faculty and students from 14 campuses. The study and its results have been described in detail elsewhere.3 Of significance for this report are the ways in which it set the course for formal assessment activities at UW and at other state institutions. Indeed, this research proved to be a watershed for the direction of assessment for three reasons.

The planning and conduct of the study took two full years. This elapsed time allowed extensive discussion among faculty and administration within campuses and across campuses and between higher education and HECB personnel. For example, HECB Chairman Charles Collins visited the UW campus and met with the faculty assessment committee for a very productive discussion. In short, the elapsed time allowed us all to learn about assessment and about our mutual desires for improved education in the state.

Thanks to the good will of many people, the heroic efforts of a few people, and the existence of what some perceived to be a common enemy, the pilot study was conducted as a fully cooperative effort between the baccalaureate and two-year institutions and among the various schools within each institutional type. This high level of cooperation and trust set the groundwork for what has continued to be a highly cooperative and mutually helpful effort. The UW has benefited greatly from colleagues in other institutions and hopefully has benefited others as well in meetings on specific topics and at the grander annual statewide assessment conferences.

Most importantly, the pilot study set the direction for assessment away from the extensive use of standardized tests whose primary use would be to compare institutions toward campus-specific programs based on the institution's own culture and mission and a greater emphasis on improvement relative to accountability. At UW and other campuses the emphasis changed from what would have been a highly centralized student testing program with minimal faculty involvement, to a highly decentralized orientation that aimed to involve a wide circle of faculty and students.


1 This funding has continued up through the current biennium, with some erosion.
2 Gillmore, G. M. On Distinguishing Assessment and Evaluation. OEA Research Notes, N-94-1, 1994.
3 The Validity and Usefulness of Three National Standardized Tests for Measuring the Communication, Computation, and Critical Thinking Skills of Washington State College Sophomores, 1989.