Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Assessment wagging the dog

When the tail wags the dog, we lose our way.

Assessment should reflect and serve real learning - not the other way around. And yet in today's test and punish accountability fad, we are obsessed with reducing learning to what can be counted.

There seems to be a kind of psychometric alchemy that is annexing our education system, pushing more and more educators to use testing as a blue-print for learning. When assessment drives the learning, we narrow the kinds of teaching and learning to only what is quantifiable.

Do we not recognize that much of what goes on in the best schools is unquantifiable? Do we not recognize that much of what the tests measure are what matters the least?

When assessment drives the learning, we fail our children more than they could every fail us.


  1. One of my mentors uses the phrase "a pebble in your shoe" when she asks a particularly challenging or provocative question in our communities of learners. It instilled the habit of seeking out opportunities to challenge our thinking in our community of learners. Your blogs and tweets consistently provide me with an opportunity to reflect on my beliefs and philosophy. This post was one of those times where I was right with you, nodding my head and then I felt it - a pebble in my shoe.

    You've highlighted one of the challenges in being a publicly-funded profession. The public feels they have the right to know how successful the system is and since their representatives in government best understand numbers, quantification of learning has tragically become the language of accountability. Where I felt my brain trip is the line, "do we not recognized that much of what goes on in the best schools is unquantifiable?"

    First, who is the "we"? I think you'd agree that if the "we" are educators, we generally get it. If the "we" is the public, how do we educate them? Same goes if the "we" refers to our elected representatives. I've held onto a relatively silly Twitter name in order to try and advance the conversation about data and assessment. Assessment is not about quantification, or reducing learning to a number. Yes, tests often measure what matters least but so be it - tests are a subset of assessment, far from the only type.

    It's powerful to think about what should "drive learning". Should any one thing drive learning? Should one thing drive learning and other things drive schooling? Is it more about getting the ball rolling, than driving? I've no clue and look forward to conversations.

    All that said, I would like respectfully request that the words "assessment" and "test" not be used interchangeably. It may be what the public and politicians think, but we need to be better. We need to be more precise. It's our profession and only we should be defining our terminology.

  2. The David Berliner article says that the problem goes beyond 'assessment' - the politicians don't trust teachers to be able to assess the learning of kids. As you Joe have said in the past I have not given grades in 6 years but I assess everyday.

  3. I posted a graph yesterday demonstrating how much time my students spend testing (both in hours and in days) compared to "the real world" (which is often the justification for testing).

  4. Assessment is just pretesting. That's why the big testing corporations, ETS and Pearson, promote assessment constantly. "Formative evaluation" was a useful concept 20 years ago, but in today's context you'd have to blind not to see its connection to both the testing and the "human capital" agendas. Neither agenda has anything to do with giving a legitimate, well rounded education.

  5. Anon - It sounds like you're very frustrated with what you see happening in schools. The fact that textbook publishers are using assessment as a selling point to advance their own agenda does not negate the importance of assessment in a well-rounded education. Diagnostic assessment is a form of assessment but it does not mean pre-testing. It's sitting down with a student before instruction and asking "So, what do you know about simple machines?" It's asking a class of students to share their experiences learning about wars and making note of the concepts they've already mastered and adjusting plans for instruction. It's co-constructing the solution to a problem, building off of students' existing knowledge by capturing all of their existing knowledge before they go off and do research.

    It's a tragedy what is happening in public schools on many levels. That said, assessment enables us to answer the "why" of instruction. I might be even so bold as to claim that teaching and learning cannot occur without a quality assessment structure - and that is not code for tests as defined by ETS and Pearson.

    "In reality it is through classroom assessment that attitudes, skills, knowledge and thinking are fostered, nurtured and accelerated – or stifled."

    Hynes (1991) cited in Earl, L. 2004. Assessment As Learning: Using classroom achievement to Maximize Student Learning. Experts in Assessment. Corwin Press Inc. Thousand Oaks, California.

  6. Jenn: Teachers have always known about and practiced what you would call assessment (formerly known as marking, evaluaton, and common sense). The reason assessment is in every second statement about education today is because education, under corporate reform, is completely obsessed with assessing, data, and determining the "worth" of students. Kids are seen as human capital and investors want to make schools focus endlessly on "result" and how to optimize them. To deny that assessment is a major part of the corporate game plan from Gates on down or to correct people who are trying to get the word out about assessment would strongly indicate that you are selling something. There are few disinterested reformers.

  7. Anon - I agree.

    But - Here's the thing. "Assessment" is our word, exactly as you described it. Has been since the time of Socrates and his questions. My passion around this issue comes from the fact we are allowing Gates et. al. to redefine our professional jargon. To paraphrase a tweet I saw today, assessment is not about numbers. It is about making thinking and learning transparent.

    How can that be a bad thing? Children are not capital and clearly, should not be seen as such. I don't know how to communicate with the reformers, Gates et al. but I do know how to communicate with my representatives in government and I am doing everything in my power to make sure they understand what the word assessment means - not what the reformers are trying to corrupt it into.

  8. Jenn: Yes, I agree that assessment was hijacked. If you work for a profit in this line, you are one of the hijackers. In today's context, assessment is nothing but a gold rush for the private sector. Making assessment what school is "about" allows companies like yours to justify their "improvements." Stiggins was the father of the modern assessment revolution. His assessment institute is now run by ETS. Governments are interested in assessment only insofar as it furthers "school improvement", human capital and privatization. There is no "healthy" privatization. There is no "safe" brand of asssessment. It's pure poison for public education.


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