Shakespeare talks about high-stakes examinations

Yes, I’m being a bit lazy today.

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Disenchanting Student Assessment Part 1

What’s the big deal with student assessment?

In simpler times, student assessment/grading/marking or what have you seemed a fairly straightforward thing. Teachers assigned tasks. Students completed tasks. Teachers graded tasks. Assigned marks were amalgamated (“averaged”) to assign an overall grade for the student. Only in recent years have educators begun to wonder: What does “Janie got 75% in science” really mean?

Several possibilities come to mind.

1.       Janie understands and can perform 75% of the curriculum.

2.       Of the questions answered, Janie got 75% of them correct.

3.       The teacher judges Janie to be a very good, but not an outstanding science student.

It is a curious thing that before the 20th century, there was very little concern over how to interpret student marks. The public had a rough idea of what the scores reported, and life went on. In many jurisdictions, students were required to write external examinations for post-secondary entrance (e.g. the A-levels in the UK since 1918 and the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the USA since 1926), and herein begins the curious evolution of some modern ideas about student assessment.

Here’s an amusing interlude. It isn’t a history of report cards, as it is titled, but rather a personal reflection (with 19th century American Sunday School and Harvard thrown in for good measure).

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I want to make the next several entries about assessing student understanding and achievement. Of course, this assessment should ultimately be reported, but that’s not quite what I’m about here. It’s important though: we assess what we think is important, and we report what we think is important. But who is “we”? Therein lies a tale.

As in the video, we see that earlier student reports were mostly open comments from the teacher about things that they believe will be of importance to parents. Cooperation, hard work, personal characteristics were pretty darned important. But something changed in the middle of the 20th century. Report cards became more about academics and less about personal development. As in the video, my personal experience was that as technology became involved, teachers began using “canned” comments, and grades. The humans fell out of the picture.

In the first decades of the 21st century we are seeing an increased emphasis on reporting ONLY on the student’s performance relative to some standard (usually the approved curriculum) with comments about personal development expressly forbidden. The idea, rightly or wrongly, is that in the 21st century teachers should assess student performance and nothing else. All else is subjective and irrelevant to the progress of public education. Worse yet, it gives a platform to teacher biases, explicit or hidden.

As I go through the next few entries, I’ll look at what I think it means to assess student achievement. I’ll contrast this with a number of ongoing trends in assessment, and I will suggest that the teacher’s biases continue to be present in student reports, but in a hidden and subtle way.

Stay tuned. If you’re new here, I hope you’re stoked. If you’re an old friend, please forgive the delays that inevitable sneak into this blog.

Student Assessment—A Parable

Once there was a teacher called Sam. Sam always tried to apply life lessons to school and school lessons to life.

One summer, Sam decided to build a cupboard. The main body was completed to Sam’s satisfaction; all that remained was to cut the cupboard door, assemble the cupboard and stain it. Sam was excited.

After running the wood through the saw, Sam grabbed a measuring tape to make sure the door was just right. Imagine Sam’s disappointment at seeing that the door was ¾” too short!

After a few moments’ reflection, Sam remembered a student assessment session from the previous year’s professional development. Perhaps the measuring tape was faulty! Sam ran to the garage and grabbed every measuring device in sight. If ever there was a time to triangulate evidence, this was it!

Poor Sam! All 3 measuring tapes gave the same disappointing news. The square rule was too short, but with a pencil and some effort, it too showed that the door was not quite up to the acceptable standard. “Perhaps,” thought Sam, “this requires my professional judgment!” So, Sam looked at the door. It looked pretty good, but Sam was not quite sure.

Fortunately, Sam remembered a TED talk. Since all children are different, we should not measure them the same way. Same with doors! This was a breakthrough! The door was fine the way it was, and Sam had imposed a restrictive regime of testing that was preventing it from being properly understood.

Feeling liberated, Sam took his original measuring tape, and made a little kink between the 3” and the 4” marks. The door was perfect! All that was required was the understanding of the importance of individual differences.

Sam hung that door, and Sam’s family all smiled and paid compliments. If they felt that the door was in any way deficient, they kept that opinion to themselves.

Constricting the modern mind

I will be brief and rambling today.

As I was wasting a few minutes on “social media” I noticed post after post where a meme–often a very clever one–was offered as evidence for a political opinion. You know what I mean “X destroys opinion Y with one example” blah blah blah. I find it both irritating and a bit frightening.

I find it frightening because more and more it appears that memes are displacing newspapers and news broadcasts as the fundamental information for voters. I see memes blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for Trans Canada Pipeline’s corporate decision not to further pursue the Energy East pipeline. I see local mayors tarred and feathered over I’m not sure what. I see that “the left” all agree on everything, and it’s all stupid. I see the “the right” all agree on everything, and that it’s all racist.

And I fear for the future of democracy.

One of the strongest responses could come from education. But I’m not sure that the will is there.

As I sadly looked at my Facebook page, a line from JS Mill’s On Liberty came to mind.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859).

Mill knew better.

People who disagree with us are not all fools, nor are they all morally defective. (Some may be, of course.) For virtually any position worth fighting over, reasonable people can disagree on the details, and sometimes the fundamentals.

But do we take other people’s disagreements with us seriously enough?

What are the real issues behind athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem? They are not all fools; they are not all anarchists hell-bent on destroying a nation. You don’t have to agree with anyone to take him seriously. But you do have to have some intellectual and moral courage.

Can we teach students to take others seriously? I think we can. I don’t think we do it well enough. Classroom debates rarely get to the heart of the matter. Debates tend to quickly degenerate into glib contests of verbal cleverness.

Student writing (or oral, or visual representation, or film, or whatever) should always consider the strongest opposition to the point being argued. In fact, this should be one of the main points of assessment in the scoring rubric (that’s scoring guide, or rules, for non-teachers). Perhaps as much as 30-40% of the student’s grade should be contingent on whether she takes her opponents seriously and gives them fair and honest voice.

I’ll stop here. I’ve given this much thought over the years, but I’ve never tried to articulate it until now. Hopefully, you’ve noticed that I haven’t given fair voice to someone who disagrees with taking opposing views seriously. It’s a dilemma.