Assessing the Dream: Student achievement in a cultural environment

Nov 15th, 1998 | By | Category: 10-2: Assessing Student Learning in a Cultural Environment, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

When tribes first create their tribal colleges, there is little time for long range planning or for looking back to gauge their progress. “The first 5 years of our 10 year old school were chaotic,” said Lester “Jack” Briggs, president of Fond du Lack Tribal and Community College in Minnesota, speaking the sentiments of many of the tribal colleges’ founders. “We were flying by the seat of our pants.”

With limited time and resources, they initially devote themselves to teaching and to keeping their doors open, not to tracking their alumni’s success. With classrooms and offices in storefronts, condemned government buildings, and converted garages, there is little need for blueprints at the beginning. They are driven by their  dream. They believe in their students and grieve to see so few of them succeeding at higher education at mainstream institutions. Empowered by their dream, they build colleges where their students can learn academic skills in a cultural environment.

Who needed to keep records of alumni when they could see the fruits of their dream everyday in the community? For example, on the Winnebago Tribal Council in Nebraska, the average education level increased from eight years to 14 years between the 1960s and 1985, according to research by Milo Colton. Nebraska Indian Community College opened its doors in 1973. By 1985, many tribal employees held degrees, including associates, bachelors, masters, and doctorates. When colleges offered such evidence, however, it was called “anecdotal” and insufficient as documentation.

While still chronically under-funded, the tribal colleges have made substantial progress. It has been 30 years now since Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College) opened its doors in Arizona. Twelve of the 31 colleges in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) have celebrated their 25 year anniversaries, and their organization also celebrated its silver anniversary this past year. As they have built their institutions, they have also increased their efforts to document their contributions.

Tribal colleges are not the only institutions under pressure to demonstrate their success. With increasing numbers of high school graduates who cannot read and decreasing performance on standardized tests, the public has demanded more accountability from educational institutions. States are increasingly using their own definitions of performance to make budgeting decisions, according to a Rockefeller Institute survey reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Now half of the states link spending on public colleges to performance, and all but a handful appear likely to do so within the next five years, according to the survey. The states use criteria such as graduation rates and efficiency, which could be very subjective.

Everyone understands the need to assure that funds are being well spent. A degree must be meaningful and not just a piece of paper purchased through the mail. The current trend alarms faculty and administrators, however, because of the threat to academic freedom and the potential for inappropriate criteria. The faculty must have the right to search for truth and knowledge about their subject matter. It is difficult for people outside of education to agree upon appropriate criteria for education and to evaluate whether those criteria have been met. How do you measure whether students have increased capacity for critical thinking, for contributing to their community and family, for reflecting their culture’s values? How do you compare the success of a Bible college with that of an urban community college or a tribal college?

Accreditation assures accountability

Over the past century, accreditation has evolved into the primary accepted means for assuring accountability. Member institutions periodically go through the process of self-study and evaluation by peers. The accreditation associations certify institutional quality to the public and at the same time protect the institution’s academic freedom.

For more than 20 years, tribal colleges have voluntarily participated in the accreditation process although many tribal college leaders are concerned about whether non-Indian accreditors can properly evaluate tribal institutions and their unique missions. In 1976, Navajo Community College was one of the first reservation-based tribal colleges to be accredited. When a college or university is accredited, the students have more access to financial aid, and their credits can transfer. The institution becomes eligible for more federal programs. Members of AIHEC are required to be accredited or candidates for accreditation.

Accreditation decisions are made by regional voluntary membership associations. Twenty-one of the 31 AIHEC colleges are accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. The eight tribal colleges in Montana and Washington are accredited by the Northwest region, the college in California by the Western region, and the college in Alberta, Canada, by the First Nations Accreditation Board. NCA has general institutional requirements and evaluative criteria to be sure that each institution has clear goals and is meeting them in an effective, honest way. To deal with a variety of diverse institutions, the NCA focuses upon how well each is meeting its own chosen mission.

IN THIS ISSUE: Assessment

This issue of Tribal College Journal focuses upon a central component of the accreditation process: assessment. To assess an institution’s success, the NCA initially focused only upon counting the number of books in the library and other quantifiable criteria such as physical facilities, staff qualifications, and education programs, according to NCA/CIHE Executive Director Steve Crow in an article in this issue by Dorreen Yellow Bird. Now NCA requires universities and colleges to document student learning.

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