Interim SACS Accreditation Report Shows Progress on Student-Learning Assessment

In the five years since its last reaffirmation of accreditation, Duke has taken countless steps to improve assessment of student learning. This past March, the university submitted an interim report showing progress in that area. This report is the culmination of more than a years’ worth of writing and editing by volunteer committee members from across all schools and units.

Every 10 years, Duke submits reports to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to reaffirm the university’s accreditation, a process last done in 2009. SACS accredited the university but initially cited non-compliance in five areas, most significantly in lacking documented measurement of student learning.

Accreditation is essential to keeping Duke eligible to receive federal funding, including financial aid and research grants.

This year, as part of the university's fifth-year report to SACS, Duke is getting ahead of the game on student learning. The report is a prelude to the more comprehensive 10-year accreditation report scheduled for 2019.

"The interim report showed we have made significant progress across the board relative to assessment," said Keith Whitfield, vice provost for academic affairs who oversaw the interim report. "We still have some departments that are not fully engaged, but uniformly we are better than in 2009. Some particular bright spots are the nursing and divinity schools."

Assessing the value of education has been a thorny challenge for many universities, and Duke isn't alone. Across the country, students, parents as well as accrediting agencies are asking for measurable evidence of the value of higher education, said Molly Goldwasser, Duke's manager of institutional assessment and accreditation.

Despite skepticism among many people that the value of education can easily be quantified, Goldwasser said Duke is using the endeavor to show the institution's strengths.

"We want to show how we are serving our students and other constituents," Goldwasser said. "Students and prospective students and prospective families are thinking about the return on investment of private education, so it's important to measure what you are learning. And what it means is in the end, we have data to show how spectacular a Duke education really is."

She said the latest report presents data on student learning from every academic department on campus But the assessment isn't a one-size-fits-all tool – a frequent criticism of assessing K-12 education, where standardized test scores are often used as the sole measure.

"Both Trinity College and the graduate and professional schools have come a long way since 2009 in thinking about their goals and how to engage with the students to measure those goals," Goldwasser said.  "It's a way of assessing student learning that truly makes programs better rather than just dutifully fulfilling mandates."

The interim SACS report also reviewed financial aid, admissions and other educational issues.  One particular focus of attention was federal policy compliance, specifically how Duke has updated its sexual assault/harassment policy to fit with new federal regulations. This includes the hiring of a new Title IX compliance coordinator who will oversee the process of how the university handles sexual harassment/assault and other Title IX complaints.

In the upcoming years, Goldwasser said the provost office will encourage each school to review, refine and improve their student learning outcomes, not as a matter of accreditation but to continue to improve the quality of education at Duke.