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January 28, 2003


SPRINGFIELD - A far-reaching plan to test what students have learned in all undergraduate and graduate academic programs at Illinois colleges and universities will be voted on by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) next week in Evanston. The Board also will act on launching another comprehensive accountability effort - a requirement that all public colleges and universities annually submit "performance indicators" to measure progress in meeting major state goals and common institutional priorities.

Board members will hear a report from the Executive Director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) on the hardships experienced by fifth-year students who lost eligibility for state need-based financial aid as a consequence of budget cuts this fiscal year. An ISAC study found some students dropped out of school, others "dropped down" by taking fewer credit hours and delaying their completion, and many used a combination of more work and higher loan debt to continue their education.

The Board meets at 9 a.m., Tuesday, February 4, in the Ballroom of the Hilton Garden Inn in Evanston.

Both the proposal on assessment of student learning and the performance indicator project are measures to gauge progress in meeting goals of The Illinois Commitment, the strategic plan adopted by the Board in 1999.

"These proposals show that the Board of Higher Education and the Illinois higher education community are serious about quality and accountability," Steven H. Lesnik, Chairman of the Board, said. "While admittedly assessment is an inexact science, the recommendation on assessing what students know and are able to do as a result of their college experience puts Illinois in the forefront of student assessment nationally."

As all college grads well know, colleges and universities have long made course-by-course assessment a regular and dreaded part of students' lives. The plan before the Board would require those assessments to take place at the conclusion of an undergraduate's general education curriculum-typically the first two years of college-and when the student completes his or her degree program, at either the undergrad or graduate level. The proposal calls for each program or discipline to devise an appropriate assessment approach, including examinations, portfolios, and other quantitative and qualitative measures, for evaluating what students have learned. The plan also requires institutions to demonstrate how they have used the assessments to improve curriculum, teaching, and learning.

The plan further seeks Board endorsement of Illinois' participation in a national pilot project, sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts, to develop a model for assessing college-level learning. Illinois is to be one of five states that will test a sampling of college and university students, both public and private, next fall in an effort to derive a test that could be used nationwide to draw state-by-state comparisons of student learning for the National Report Card project.

Board approval of the performance indicator project would add an objective layer of data and other information for evaluating progress - statewide and by institution - on the six goals of The Illinois Commitment. Institutions will report information on a variety of indicators, including the number of teachers gaining certification; the net cost of attending an Illinois college or university for students at various income levels; degree completions by race/ethnicity, disability, and gender; the cost of instruction; and graduation rates.

The indicators will enable policy-makers and campus leaders to draw conclusions about progress, shortcomings, and areas in need of improvement at the state level over time and at the campus level as compared to performance goals each institution will set.

Board members also will hear an update from Larry Matejka, ISAC Executive Director, on the status and financial circumstances of students who were denied a fifth year of aid under the Monetary Award Program (MAP) as a result of budget cuts that trimmed $38 million from the agency's need-based assistance program, affecting 12,000 recipients overall and 8,000 fifth-year students, or about 5 percent of ISAC's clientele.

The ISAC report notes that although fifth-year students, in general, were "significantly poorer" than other MAP recipients (average family income $26,373), 85 percent of them found a way to continue their studies. Some institutions used internal funds to make up the lost MAP grants, which for someone at the maximum grant level would have amounted to just under $5,000 for the academic year. The study also found that fifth-year students were predominantly older; nearly two out of three were from racial or ethnic minorities.

The report documents that students used a variety of means to persist toward their degrees, including increasing the number of hours they worked each week, reducing the number of credit hours they carried, and borrowing more to finance the shortfall of MAP money.

In a related matter, the Board's Committee on Affordability will meet Tuesday afternoon at the Hilton to hear public testimony.


Don Sevener



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