Assessment – The Elephant in the Room

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I have found that, in general, educators don’t like talking about assessment. This could be for any of a variety of reasons:

  • It may be because of standardised testing.
  • It may be because it is confused with archaic habits like marking.
  • It may be because of its relationship with reporting.
  • It may be because it often has little or no effect on learning.
  • It may be because it often remains hidden from students.
  • It may be because methods are unsophisticated and/or don’t represent the types of learning valued by modern educators.
  • It may be because it is subjective, biased or even prejudiced.
  • It may be because it can be time-consuming.
  • It may be because it gets used against teachers, and even students.

The problem is that, as we reject all of the forms of assessment that seem devoid of purpose, value and ethics, we risk not replacing them with forms of assessment that do have a purpose, that do have value and that are ethical. It is very easy to reject things, but it is hard work to design better alternatives. Often, the void that is left behind by the rejection of something can be just as harmful as the thing itself.

Sadly, the origin of the word is not helpful. Originally associated with calculating how much tax people had to pay, assessment has come to signify “the act of making a judgment”. Neither of these have any place in education.

No wonder it doesn’t feel right!

So, why are we still using the word?

I’m not going to pretend to suggest a better word. Lots of people have already done that. But, assessment lives on and may – either present or absent – be damaging learning.

Instead, I’d like to put forward some suggestions, and here they are:

  • I suggest that educators take the time, put in the thought and make the effort to define why students are learning what they are learning, how they may be learning and what they may be doing when they are learning.
  • I suggest that educators design effective tools and strategies that will illustrate learning to their students, guide students as they seek to make progress, help them become aware of their achievements and identify next steps.
  • I suggest that educators make these tools and strategies highly visible to students, co-create them with their students when possible, and make reference to them and reflection through them a regular routine.
  • I suggest that educators seeks ways to involve parents in these processes, helping them understand how their children learn and how they can be part of it.
  • I suggest that schools seek ways to communicate, share and celebrate what is revealed by these approaches as they are likely to be much more accurate representations of learning, and of growth, than other forms of assessment have been for years.
  • I suggest that we commit to doing these things with a genuine sense of urgency as traditional forms of assessment, or nothing in their place, are continuing to hold us all back.

It all sounds quite obvious, really, but this is how we represent, value and promote growth. We don’t do those things through judgment, but neither do we do them by saying “its all in my head”. For a start, thats not true. But also, if its in your head then your students can’t see it, and they deserve to see it.

It is, after all, their learning.

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One comment

  1. Juliana Cavalieri

    The metaphor of the elephant was the best one! Great thoughts and reflection for this week. Thanks for sharing the words. I am the one always bothered by the assessments. Although I try my best to think about something meaningful for students, I get to the final thought of “am I preparing them for the big final test?” There is always a big one in the end that is out of my hands and has absolutely nothing to do with “real life”. That’s probably my greatest worry. Well, reflections, right?

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