Thoughts on Assessment 1: A response

I “met” Henrick Oprea (Blog, Twitter) in #edchat on Twitter last night and enjoyed a conversational exchange with him. Henrick is an English teacher in Brazil. The discussion in #edchat last night revolved around assessment and was lively, informative, and a pleasure to take part in. I spent time, following the discussion, letting the conversation mature and develop in my thoughts. I have often had strong opinions about assessment, especially standardized forms of assessment. I think that standardized assessments are disingenuous tools inserted in the educational process from a purely profit motive mindset.

Earlier this year I responded to “It’s not ‘the tests.’ It’s us.” a blog post by Dr. Scott McLeod (Blog, Twitter). “It is the test! Or is it . . .” I said commented that:

[Standardized tests are] an analytical tool too often abused and misused. It is not wrong to take regular snapshots of learning, analyze them, and improve practice. The problem arises when these snapshots are given an undo amount of significance in the process of improvement.

I mention this because, I do believe that assessment is a useful and necessary tool. However, I also believe it is rarely used in a way that benefits either the teacher or the student and I mean all assessment, whether standardized or teacher generated. I want to respond to some portions of Henrick’s post, an outgrowth of last nights #edchat, that concerned me – not concerned me about him (he’s a stand-up guy), but because I think they are generally applicable to a wide segment of the teaching force in this country.

“Tests are summative instead of formative, i.e. they aim at measuring and summarize what has been taught through a period of time, and usually come at the end of a unit or a course.”

Tests rarely assess all of the information that is presented and I don’t think that is academically honest? I can remember many times when writing a history test, I would sort through the information that was discussed, worked with, and hopefully learned and the amount should have generate a test of ten pages in length and take three hours to complete effectively . . . so I eliminated content from consideration. It bothered me then, it bothers me know remembering I did it. If a teacher feels strongly enough that a particular point needs to be taught and learned – why leave it off the test? This creates a disconnect in the process of learning that leaves students in a bind. They already feel anxious about testing due to the large influence those test scores have on the way they are perceived and sorted academically (grades). They must try and “remember” it all in the event the teacher asks a question about it on a test, this is why they ask the proverbial, “Is this going to be on the test?” It is educationally dishonest to teach something, require it to be learned when the teacher will not require the student to know it for an assessment piece. It is even more disingenuous if your test carries the most weight in the final grade determination.

“Learners should be able to use their tests results to find out how to improve and what they need to work on.”

If students attend school in order to construct meaning and tests are, as Henrick suggests, a way for them to understand what they know, then why are tests used to determine success or failure in a class (i.e. weighted as part of a final grade)? If a test is a tool to identify gaps, then if it reveals them, why don’t we automatically go back and insure those gaps are filled instead of moving on to the next unit? I like Henrick’s idea that a test can be a tool for understanding what “I” know. However, to be completely authentic, you would have to allow the student time to fill the gaps and then represent internalization of the knowledge. After all, isn’t mastery more important then “finishing the book?” Too often students are assessed in a method that is in direct opposition to the way in which they learned. During the learning process they may be required to work and think as a group; collect, organize, and present information or data visually; or use a method other than “paper and pencil” to evidence their learning. Here’s the problem I see: most assessments are done individually, without student input, and most often with paper and pencil. How can that type of assessment enable students to find ways to improve, both their knowledge base and process skills, much less be authentic?

“Now, it’s not that most teachers don’t want to give students useful feedback, but, depending on the context, it’s simply impossible.”

If feedback, on work that is required, is impossible – where is the academic integrity? Learning is a complex process that requires mental scaffolding provided by the teacher. If a teacher requires a student to learn “something,” facilitates the learning, checks to see if it has been internalized, but fails to provide feedback on the results or teach the student how to interpret the results, their students are not in a learning environment. Action should always result in feedback from the teacher, if a student “does,” the teacher should provide feedback. This demands a very thoughtful approach to the planning and implementing of learning opportunities. If you teach it then assess it. If you don’t assess it, why did you teach it?

“There are classrooms around the world with 50 students, and some teachers have to teach 16 or 18 groups. This means some teachers have more than 800 students. Not only do these teachers have to plan their lessons, but they also need to design and grade all these tests, and they usually are forced to have reports on students’ progress every other month. Now if teachers have 16 to 18 groups of 50 minutes each, they’re in the classroom around 30 hours a week. Add to that all the time it takes to assess students outside class, planning lessons, and being an educator in the core meaning of the word (worrying about each student and his or her learning, and empowering your learners), then you tell me how such an educator would be able to radically change his way of assessing students, going from summative to formative, using portfolios (for instance) instead of standardized tests, or tests made by the teacher him or herself. This means keeping track of 800+ students’ writing. I can’t blame teachers for not doing that. Besides, if a teacher has to assess that many students, there’s the serious risk of rater-reliability issues.”

Steve paints a rather daunting picture and unfortunately, he is right, scenarios like this do occasionally exist. However, teaching is a profession; it is an art to be practiced. We cannot allow such scenarios to divert our efforts at academic integrity and growth. If we throw our hands up and cry, “It is just to big, it can’t be done” then we need to find another career. We are teachers because we believe in (and idealize) the art of learning. We have an obligation to our students, their parents, and our profession to find the answers to rethinking school so that Henrick’s scenario doesn’t lead to mediocrity and burnout.

Assessment, long ago lost its usefulness, getting caught up in a whirlwind of “one-upsmenship.” As an educational tool it was absconded with by those who wanted use it to tout numbers, those who prefer using kids to generate a picture of American supremacy as more important than a picture of students authentically learning. If the goal of school is constructing meaning and internalizing knowledge then assessment should be placed in its appropriate position in the hierarchy of what gets done – near the middle. It should provide students windows on what they have learned, need to learn, and provide them a guiding light to what they want to learn . . . shouldn’t it? It is time for educators to wrest assessment back, place it where it belongs, and rethink school . . .

Update: Steven Anderson (Blog, Twitter) offers additional thoughts on assessment generated from last nights #edchat discussion “Summative? Formative? I Just Wanna Know What My Kids Don’t . . .

Other’s thoughts and ideas on assessment:

Guiding Principles for Assessment by Daniel Meyer at dy/dan

I Test, Therefore I Am at DragonPhysics Blog

Assessment, Giving Students A Choice by Maggie Hos-McGrane at Tech Transformation

It Is The Test! Or is it . . . at Constructing Meaning

Assess the Assessment by Tom Whitby at My Island View

Assessment as (re)search at University Writing Assessment


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Assessment 1: A response

Add yours

  1. I’m not sure most teachers assess students. I think many give tests and quizzes to determine a grade. Doing that is not assessment in my mind, and people may disagree with that.

    Assessment should be used throughout a learning process to course-correct. It should be used to redirect student learning efforts as well as provide direct feedback to the teacher relative to their effectiveness. Too often students see “assessment” or tests as something done to them. Students need to see and understand that assessment should be used to help students and their efforts become more effective, not just judge their effort as some final product.

    I’m reminded of the mournful comments of my colleagues when students didn’t perform well on a test, and on a particular piece of content: “I don’t understand why they didn’t do well, we covered that in class.”

    This, of course, drove me nuts. Did you just cover it, or did you teach it and did they learn it. And how do you know?

    With a thorough and effective assessment plan, they would have never have had the need to ask that question…

    Thanks for the post. Well done.

  2. I wonder if you are overlooking the factor of time. Assessments are more than a measure of mastery, or of gaps at any particular moment. They are a measure of what a student has mastered in a given amount of time up to that moment. As such they are also a measure of said student’s learning skills – work habits, attention, focus, memory, processing, etc. Mastery alone is not a meaningful measure of teaching or learning. What is meaningful is mastery within a specific time frame. Deadlines are critical – in the classroom and in the real world. JR

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