Allow me to paint a picture: You, an assessment leader, have been given a seemingly impossible task: to tell the story of a failing program.
Now, you didn’t know going into this project that the program was failing. Anecdotal evidence was positive. The program has been around for some time and it seems (key word) to be working as designed. All good, you think. Easy-peasy. Then you look at the data.
The enrollment in this program is declining. Staff are turning over left and right and without consistent leadership, recruitment efforts are dying on the vine.
What about student success metrics, you think, that’s got to be positive. But wait. No one has been tracking the student progress. No one knows if the students engaged in this program are successfully making their way to graduation … until now that is. And friends, it’s not pretty.
So, here you are. You have mountains of data that indicate this program isn’t working. It is now your job to communicate this to the leadership in your division/institution and then what? Walk away?
Have you been here before? Does this sound painfully familiar? How might you know that this is happening to you? You may have experienced this phenomenon if:
So, in this scenario, what do you do?
It can be enticing to use our power as assessment leaders to portray services and programs in a positive light - even if things aren’t working. If you’re like me, you think highly of your colleagues in the trenches doing this work. You respect the time they commit to serving students. To use our power to present information that in any way negates that work feels …. well, a little like betrayal.
Never mind that assessment can be a land mine when we’re talking about funding and resources. Like other work happening in any organization, assessment is not free from politics. We want to tread carefully, but to tell the story of positives in lieu of telling the story of what we truly see in the data is not the job we are hired to perform.
Of course, it’s hard to remember that when you’re in a full-blown panic preparing to deliver the blow of bad news. In fact, when you’re in the midst of that panic it’s easy to conflate our jobs as assessment leaders with another job: Public Relations.
What’s my job here anyway?
First, let’s remember the true purpose of assessment - to improve. That’s it. That’s why they pay us the big bucks. To find ways we can improve. Whether a program or service is failing or crushing it, we can always do it better. Enhancement is always the goal.
But because it can feel challenging to remember this in the moment, here are some ideas to help you navigate:
Give your leadership a heads up. Let them know that the findings aren’t as positive as we hoped, but there is nothing but possibility here (ok, maybe that’s a little PR-ish. But stay with me!) And while you’re at it …
Give the program staff a heads up, too. Do your colleagues the courtesy of letting them know ahead of time that the findings aren’t all positive. But do more than that. Pull them into the process. Ask for their thoughts. Chances are they will have ideas around what’s going on. Be excited to partner with them on this project. Maybe you write the report together. Maybe you write it, but get their insights first and solicit their feedback after. Whatever you do - don’t blindside them. Any negative report you deliver should be shared with your colleagues before you put pen to paper (or open that word doc).
Read, read, and read some more. Go back to literature. Surely this isn’t the only program or service of its kind that has experienced challenges. Do your research and share those details with your colleagues. It serves not only as a practical approach (actionable steps, anyone?) but also serves to remind folks that challenges are normal. Staff who are invested in this program may appreciate knowing that they aren’t alone in facing these obstacles. Who doesn’t need to hear that every now and then?
Not a PR professional, try: Assessment Partner. Use the literature to make recommendations. Focus on the possibilities instead of any perceived failing. You are probably doing this already. Recommendations are a staple in assessment. Use them as a way to channel your assessment role into an assessment partnership with your colleagues.
You can use assessment to advocate on behalf of your colleagues and what they need to enhance services. We really are on the same team here. This is a space for you to work together in service of students. And isn’t that what our work is really all about?
Most importantly of all – if you find yourself in this scenario, connect with your assessment colleagues. You’re not alone. If you take nothing else from this post, remember that. This work is as challenging as it is important. Sometimes just talking through these scenarios as they happen can be powerful. Find people who value your work and recognize the balancing act we often have to walk.
Not long ago I shared this challenge with a senior leadership member at my own institution. He reminded me of this: your name will be on that report. As a researcher, as an assessment professional, it is your name attached to it. You should feel confident, he told me, about what you report and you should feel supported to report what you see. The message there: this work is valued.
Besides the incredible privilege of working for leaders who value this work and believe in it, I think this is a good reminder for all of us. Assessment work is vital. It matters. It tells a story not only of the past and the present, but also the future.
Our research and analysis can shed light on gaps and pain points, but our storytelling and collaboration can do even more. Alongside our colleagues, we can tell the story of immense possibilities. We can set the scene to reveal where we can go from here.
Blog written by Jordan Bullington-Miller, Research Associate at UNC Charlotte and Blog Team Writer.