Planning Issues: Middle States Accreditation Process and Self-Study Report

Friday, April 29, 2005
1:30 - 3:00 p.m.
404 Old Main

The “Middle States Accreditation Process and Self-Study Report” was the topic of the April meeting of the Quality Advocates’ Network. Panelists discussed the process of the University’s recent Middle States re-accreditation, the recommendations in the self-study report, and the feedback from the visiting team. The panel included David Monk, Dean of the College of Education; Renata Engel, Associate Vice Provost for Teaching Excellence, a member of the Middle States Accreditation Steering Committee, and chair of the Subcommittee on Assessment of Student Learning; and Louise Sandmeyer, Executive Director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment and a member of the Middle States Accreditation Steering Committee.

Louise Sandmeyer began the discussion with an overview of the accreditation process. She offered three reasons for why an institution might undertake the accreditation process: 1) self-regulation and peer review, 2) strengthening and sustaining the quality and integrity of higher education, and 3) making it worthy of public confidence and minimizing the scope of external control. She described the process as cyclical with re-accreditation occurring every 10 years and a written periodic review report submitted midway through the cycle. This year—2005—marked Penn State’s 10-year re-accreditation evaluation.

Sandmeyer then described the membership of Penn State’s Middle States Steering Team, which was chaired by former vice provost for Academic Affairs Bob Secor. Sandmeyer explained that the Steering Team organized subcommittees to address each of the Middle States standards for accreditation and that each of these subcommittees was chaired by a Steering Team member. She also described the membership of the evaluation team that represented the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Penn State was offered an opportunity to suggest individuals for inclusion on the evaluation team and was fortunate that several of the individuals suggested were on the evaluation team, including the co-chairs Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and Mary Ann Swain, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at SUNY Binghamton.

Sandmeyer explained that Penn State chose to do a “focused self-study” with particular attention on “teaching and learning.” She described the objectives of this “focused self-study” as:

  • involving the University community in a dialogue,
  • allowing us to get a better understanding of what our programs, policies, and resources for teaching and learning are,
  • assessing how well our policies and programs are being carried out,
  • learning about the best practices at our various colleges and locations that can be shared with other units,
  • getting a better handle on our assessment practices for teaching and learning, and
  • getting a better sense of what challenges we have for our faculty to teach better and our students to learn better.

Renata Engel discussed the process of developing the self-study in more detail. She discussed the Middle States standards that were to be addressed in the self-study and mentioned that two of the standards, “Educational Offerings” and “General Education,” were combined. Engel described several common themes that emerged during the process of developing the self-study:

  • the use of technology, particularly in student services and coursework;
  • a strong connection to Faculty Senate, for example the Faculty Senate’s role in not only approving courses but also setting policy; and
  • a wealth of support for students and faculty, for example the University Libraries and faculty development resources such as the Dutton Center, the Teaching and Learning with Technology unit, and the Royer center.

Engel also noted Middle States’ focus on assessment stating that “five or six” categories specifically identified assessment.

Engel then discussed the recommendations and the feedback of the Middle States evaluation team. She described the team’s main recommendations as:

  • design and develop an assessment plan;
  • continue to work on “curricular drift” (but maintain student mobility within the system); and
  • coordinate the communication of what resources are available to faculty and students.

Engel then mentioned that the next step is to have all units take a look at the plan and identify what action steps that they might take. She also pointed to several good examples in the plan.

David Monk discussed his college's experience with their recent National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) accreditation. Monk described NCATE's emphasis on “teaching and learning” and some major changes that have occurred recently, most notably a shift from measuring “input” to measuring “assessment.” For example, Monk posed the question, “How do you know your graduates are prepared to go out in the field and make a contribution?”

Monk described the NCATE accreditation as based on six standards and mentioned that review is a voluntary process. The voluntary nature of the accreditation process can lead to “grumbling” among faculty and staff, some of whom may be thinking, “Why are we doing this?” Faculty and staff may also be expressing concerns over the assessment focus of the accreditation process. Monk described the concern as, “How are we going to demonstrate this?”

Monk also described the challenge presented by Penn State's organizational structure. NCATE accreditation applies to all professional preparation programs in education. At Penn State, these programs may be dispersed across various departments and colleges. When it comes to the programs offered outside of the College of Education, the college can only act in a “consultation mode” with these other departments.

Monk reported that the college did meet all the standards of the accrediting body. In their feedback to the college, the NCATE identified two areas for improvement: assessment and diversity. Monk stated that neither of these areas is a surprise. He said that the college didn't really learn anything new from NCATE's feedback. But that the process of undertaking the self-study in preparation for accreditation was useful. Monk's advice to others who may be facing a pending accreditation process was, “avoid the tendency to overwhelm with evidence.” He described how—especially with the increased focus on assessment—there may be a tendency to gather volumes of data in support of your activities.

Louise Sandmeyer commented that the complexity of the institution is really a factor. She described how the Middle State visiting team, commenting on Penn State's complex organizational structure, mentioned, “If Penn State could do this [assessment] right, you could be a model for others.”

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

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