National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment |

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Institute Occasional Paper 1:
Assessment, Accountability and Improvement


Ewell, P. T. (2009, November). Assessment, Accountability, and Improvement: Revisiting the Tension. (NILOA Occasional Paper No. 1). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.


Assessments of what students learn during college are typically used for either improvement or accountability, and occasionally both.  For reasons carefully outlined by Peter Ewell in this NILOA Occasional Paper, since the early days of the “assessment movement” in the US, these two purposes of outcomes assessment have not rested comfortably together.  No one is more qualified than Ewell to summarize what has changed and what has not over the past two decades in terms of student learning outcomes assessment and the shifting expectations and demands of policy makers, accreditors, higher education leaders, and government officials about student and institutional performance.  After delineating how various kinds of information can and should be used for improvement and accountability, he points to ways that institutions can productively manage the persistent tensions associated with improvement and accountability as faculty and staff members do the important work of documenting, reporting, and using what students have learned and can do as a result of their college experience. 

Paper Abstract

Many of the same tensions that characterized the accountability and improvement purposes of student learning outcomes assessment when the assessment movement began in the mid-1980s still exist today.  In this paper I examine these tensions and how they can be managed, if not completely resolved.  First, I outline the major relevant changes affecting the assessment movement that have occurred in higher education over the past two decades.  These include the perceived legitimacy of assessment today, the demand by policymakers for better and more transparent information about student and institutional performance, the press by accreditors on institutions to collect and use student learning outcomes data, and the availability of more and better assessment instruments and approaches.

Then, I describe and analyze the conceptual incongruities between the accountability and improvement assessment paradigms.  Adopting either of these two perspectives affects institutional choices about what and how to assess, how to organize assessment tasks and strategies, and how to communicate assessment results. As with all ideal types, the differences between these two contrasting opposing paradigms of assessment are exaggerated, and rarely does an existing assessment approach fully conform to either one.  The next section discusses the major external players in higher education that have stimulated institutions to engage in assessment and the kinds of information about performance on which they do or should focus. The groups include state government agencies, the federal government, regional and specialized accreditors, and the public interest represented by consumer demand for information and third party judgments (e.g., rankings) about institutional performance.  I close by discussing four principles to help guide institutions in successfully dealing with the tensions between improvement and accountability and the sometime competing interests of internal and external stakeholders:  (1) respond visibly to domains of legitimate external concern; (2) show action on the results of assessment; (3) emphasize assessment at the major transition points in a college career; and (4) embed assessment in the regular curriculum.  

Despite adhering to these principles and using other emerging promising practices, some elements of the accountability-improvement tension may be difficult to completely resolve.  Nevertheless, because the stakes associated with institutional performance are so much higher for policy makers today, it is imperative that we make much more progress in collecting and using assessment results to improve and in communicating what we are doing more effectively to external audiences. 

Biography of Author

Dr. Peter Ewell

Dr. Ewell is the Vice President at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), a research and development center founded to improve the management effectiveness of colleges and universities. A member of the staff since 1981, Dr. Ewell's work focuses on assessing institutional effectiveness and the outcomes of colleges, and involves both research and direct consulting with institutions and state systems on collecting and using assessment information in planning, evaluation, and budgeting. He has directed many projects on this topic, including initiatives funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the National Institute for Education, the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. In addition, he has consulted with over 375 colleges and universities and more than thirty state or national governments internationally on topics including assessment, program review, enrollment management, and student retention. Dr. Ewell has authored seven books and numerous articles on the topic of improving undergraduate instruction through the assessment of student outcomes.

A graduate of Haverford College, he received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University in 1976 and was on the faculty of the University of Chicago.


This paper was featured in the WICHE Policy Alerts on January 5, 2010. The e-alert reads: "National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment: Revisiting the tension between assessment, accountability, and improvement

A new report from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment finds that many of the same issues and “tensions” that defined the accountability movement of the 1980s still exist today. “Assessment, Accountability, and Improvement: Revisiting the Tension” examines changes in higher education that have shaped the assessment movement over the past two decades before offering recommendations that can guide institutional behavior and help them to successfully resolve the tension between improved performance and the interests of policymakers and other stakeholders. Recommendations include demonstrating action on the results of assessment, emphasizing assessment at major transition points in a college career, and embedding assessment in the regular curriculum."

To find out more about WICHE, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, please visit their website.

This paper was also mentioned in the Lumina Newsletter in January 2010.

This occasional paper was mentioned in the May 2011 Council for Graduate Schools Publication titled, "Preparing Future Faculty to Assess Student Learning."


"External calls for accountability cannot be ignored. Still, effective assessment requires that the process be driven by the institution, with a long-term time horizon, and that the utility of assessment results be valued in terms of their usefulness and strategic impact."

Stan Ikenberry

Stanley O. Ikenberry
Co-Principal Investigator
National Institute for Learning
Outcomes Assessment