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In its ideal form, systematic assessment is a legitimate way for honors programs and colleges to gauge strengths and weaknesses, measure the effect of various learning environments, and evoke positive institutional change based on objective, empirical data. Such assessment can take two main forms. Programmatic assessment (also known as program evaluation) is an extremely useful tool for gathering evidence and evaluating whether an honors program embodies the NCHC’s basic characteristics (Sederberg 159) and/or meets its own institutional goals, e.g., higher rates of retention, graduation, graduate/professional school acceptance, and successful competition for national fellowships. Furthermore, as Otero and Spurrier argue (5), this oftenrequired process can offer honors programs a way to improve, tailor the assessment mechanism, demonstrate program strengths, and garner financial support. Like it or not, in these competitive times programmatic assessment has become a part of American higher education, and honors programs or colleges that do not engage in it, or at least shape it to their own purpose and design, risk alienating accountability-driven entities on and off campus.
While honors programs are certainly not immune to such self-interested concerns, our true bottom line is providing students with an enriched education that cultivates learning at the very highest scholarly levels. To this end, the second main type of assessment, learning outcomes assessment, attempts to measure what college students learn as a result of participation in honors and also to distinguish the unique characteristics of an honors education. This essay will focus on the second type, highlighting some limitations to the assessment of learning in honors. First, we will examine limitations in the methodology and logic of learning assessment from a behavioral science perspective, raising concerns about what we are truly measuring and how we are evaluating, interpreting, and applying this information. Second, we will raise important professional concerns about the necessity of learning assessment and the impact, if any, it has on the basic tenet of academic freedom.