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Is our focus on assessment taking away from our children's education?

Redefining the cart and the horse in public schooling
2 January 2012
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It has become clear to me that we're spending way too much time focusing on assessment and evaluation. In fact, conversations about data driven decision-making, authentic assessment practices, design-down planning and testing protocols have now worked their way into the everyday vernacular of teachers and students, and have become such a strong plot line in the narrative of modern-day schooling, to the point where I fear that the very ideas and practices that are supposed to make our children's education richer and more meaningful are actually having the opposite effect. All indications point to the fact that we have somehow convinced ourselves that assessment and evaluation policy and practice is our raison d’être in public schools.


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Now don't get me wrong; I'm not opposed to strong, equitable and responsive assessment practice. This needs to be an important pillar in modern schooling. I am, however, opposed to anything that suggests that assessment and evaluation are the new horses and that imaginative, passionate and inspired teaching is somehow secondary to the project.

When richly complex and engaging learning experiences are sidelined because they are "too difficult to assess", we are taking something precious away from our children.

When our curriculum design and lesson planning is engineered and guided primarily by the set of expectations that will be measured and commented on come report card time, then we run the risk of losing sight of the real needs of the real students that we work with each day.

When our teachers feel that they have to rush through their work with students so that arbitrary reporting deadlines can be met, then they are forced into covering curriculum as opposed to uncovering or discovering it.

When our school days continue to be compartmentalized in order to reflect the boxes on our report cards, then we prevent both students and teachers from exploring the world in all of its integrated beauty.

In essence, if we want to encourage our teachers and students to become more deeply involved with what we are asking them to do, then we need to place our conversations about assessment and evaluation in their proper place. And believe me, that place is not in front of engaging, flexible and responsive teaching.

I have a few practical suggestions on how a better balance might be struck, but I will leave you with a few questions.

As an educator, how have you been able to negotiate the tension between quality teaching and quality assessment practice? Is there a tension for you?

As an administrator, how has the demand for data-driven decision-making changed your leadership style? Or has it?

As a parent, have you noticed a change in approaches to schooling compared to when you were a student?

As a policy-maker, has an increased focus on assessment and evaluation changed the types of conversations that are taking place for you?

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Hello Stephen, I have been

Hello Stephen,

I have been teaching for 7 or 8 years and have grown increasingly frustrated with the continual merry-go-round regarding assessment/evaluation.  I find the focus on various assessment practices/techniques leads to a continual conversation about the "how" of teaching.  I guess that is useful, up to a point!  Rubrics are useful to allow students to be aware of what the teacher is "looking for", but may not really create any change in teaching practice.  The rubric is really only as "good" as the teacher using it.  And then there are hundreds of hours of meetings splitting the difference between "adequate detail" and "some detail".  

As I move forward in my own teaching, I have begun to spend more and more time thinking about the "why" of teaching.  You can create a great lesson, with great resources, scaffolded and differentitated and...so what! How will the learning help students?  "Why" am I teaching that lesson?  The easy answer for every teacher (in Ontario, at least) is that the expectations are "in the curriculum".  But the curriculum is so wide, that almost any lesson can fit into it.  

I feel that the present day focus on assessment practices that help to judge student "products" and the (almost) complete lack of interest shown by most administrators on what the students are actually "doing" (process) in the classroom is a leading factor in the lack of interest in school shown by many of today's students.

Neil, your comments are

Neil, your comments are important and, to me, point to a very powerful point. I'm not sure that the "3-part lesson plan" that is so much a part of our current practice, at least here in Ontario, has a place for deep reflection on the why. Perhaps it should!

I'm reminded of the TedTalk video by Simon Sinek, http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html about the centrality of that question, why!

Any ideas on engaging administrators in becoming more interested in what students are actually doing?

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Wow - great discussion here -

Wow - great discussion here -

(Not sure that my message comes across the way I want to with this comment - struggled with being articulate. My perspective is from post-secondary but also based on reflecting on my own learning and experiences with my daughter, talking to other parents and teacher friends.)

Since I read this post yesterday I've been thinking about how difficult it is to make big changes if we chip away at the current structures and try to transform them into something that makes sense to everyone... it is a daunting task and the easy way ends up as not being enough to actually make the substantial changes that are necessary... but what if we implemented/supported a big change...

I was at a session on e-portfolio's recently (thanks to @dougpete Doug Peterson). Here are some of the thoughts based on my notes:

E-portfolios have been around forever, but have never gained traction - do we need to rebrand, drop the e and just call it learning?... LMS ‘s are picking up on the need of having e-portfolio's as part of their packaging/branding (not sure that this makes it more important...) Our college portal has a tool that can be implemented... but its more than the tool ... its the process of digitizing content, storing it and showcasing its importance as part of the learning journey... ie) learning narrative rich in artifacts

From the process of using/building their e-portfolio: students can benefit from the process of assessment, their involvement in the process, self and peer assessment, new depth for reflection etc., Assessment for the learning is more student centred.

Students/Learners will develop and begin to practice a process that will be lifelong and lifewide. Assessment for portfolio work HAS to be different - more reflection and more self-assessment - students should self assess - conference with the teacher - negotiate an assessment together. There are many levels to the learning that occurs in creating, tagging, maintaining, sharing, organizing the portfolio - rich authentic learning...

I agree that assessment and

I agree that assessment and evaluation must not take precedent over innovative, responsive instruction because if they do then the teaching is necessarily less responsive. However, it must also be acknowledged how rebellious teaching beyond the safety of imposed standards is seen to be, specifically how hard it is to exist as a perceived outlaw regardless of whether that frontier is regarded as the cutting edge or the margins. There is a time and a place for objectives or learning targets, certainly, but I worry they are too ubiquitous and about the message that sends about who is driving the learning. Perhaps this speaks to an unspoken yet hegemonic construction of students; are we uncomfortable with them driving or sharing in the driving of the learning because we are still living in the land of "father knows best" adult-centrism?

Terms like "data-driven" often go hand-in-hand with "accountability", which, to me, feel like a systemic, systematic chipping away of my autonomy as a professional, and a euphemism for "I don't trust you". I would argue this pervasive culture of lack of trust for educators is also a major obstacle in seeing more classrooms "exploring the world in all of its integrated beauty". Last year I spent some time learning at the ICS Lab School in Toronto, and asked one of the teachers about her assessment practices. As a teacher in the public system, you can imagine my shock to hear her say they don't have summative assessments. The reasons she gave were because "I already know where they (students) are" and because there is never a conclusion to learning, only more learning. I continue to exoticize her words; the common sense, the simplicity, the trust for her and her learners are simultaneously so familiar and foreign. At that moment I felt a sort of phantom pain, something hurt that for me was never there.

Recognizing and challenging the myriad complex power structures, knowledges, beliefs, and philosophies that shape education will be key to advancement, why not start with how we define students and teachers?

Robyn, I think that your

Robyn, I think that your critical approach is helpful in forcing us/inviting us to go deeper here. I think that the trust issue is huge. Some would argue that the focus on assessment practice, accompanied by the believe that there are "best practices" that should be part of every teacher's approach is an attempt to standardize and deprofessionalize.

It would be interesting to explore different views of "the learner" and how the assumptions ground each could take our approach to assessment, evaluation, and school design in totally different diretions.

So many catalytic comments so

So many catalytic comments so far, but I just had to add a few new angles.

1)  We need to develop and become comfortable with measuring learning in new ways that don't end in an A or B, or a percentage.  The closest I've seen out there, has been the leveling system of rubrics but there must be more.  As a teacher-librarian I struggle constantly to measure my impact on student success, even though I know, intrinsically, that it is happening.  Immediate one-on-one feedback is the best kind of feedback.  We need to make ways for this to happen more often in every learning situation.

2)  We need to take away the fear factor of evaluation. I have a dream where students learn for the sake of learning, but that means that we need to give them autonomy.  That's a huge 180 from where most teacher's teach.  If they were autonomous in their learning, they would know themselves when they had accomplished something.  We don't need to give them a number if their accomplishments are self-driven and meaningful.  We need to determine a level of mastery for every single assignment, and not allow students to go ahead until they have accomplished that.  

3)  This year my school's EQAO literacy test result dropped 8% and for the first time ever we are below the provincial standard.  What's changed?  My VP will argue that we had to suddenly ask students who had been deferred to take the test, who weren't capable.  How is that an accurate measurement of literacy and why do we care?  I would argue that our whole school focus of big ideas, shifting away from courses of study that focus on skill development, has had a big impact on this.  However, our suspensions have also decreased by 400% and I think both student and teacher satisfaction in the classroom is increasing.   So why are we doing this measurement that leads to false data and just generally freaks everyone out?  (go back to step 1, rinse and repeat).

Clearly, you've stirred up a hornet's nest, Stephen.  Well done!

Thanks for the comments

Thanks for the comments Alanna. I would like to pick up on the last comment, in particular. For some reason we have, rather arbitrarily, designated the "year" as the time interval for measuring progress and improvement. There's plenty of reason to believe that real improvement, and real progress takes much longer than one year. I think that its important to attach solid research tools and approaches to any initiative on which we embark, we put too much pressure on ourselves when we deal in such short intervals.

I would love to devote more time to your first comment on measuring learning. Do you think that's really what we're measuring now? I think that  deep learning, both from a content and a skill perspective, will require more robust tools and strategies if we are going to really satisfy ourselves that we are "measuring it". Actually, I'm not even sure that "measure" is the most helpful term to use?

Great article Steve, and

Great article Steve, and gives a lot of great points to consider. Teaching an EQAO year (Grade 3) myself, I find there to be a constant push throughout the year to assess, assess, assess, mostly in order to prepare these 8 and 9 year olds for the big assessment at the end of May. Should passing a test really be the focus of an entire school year?  Quality assessment is absolutely important, of course, but spending hours analyzing how we can go up a couple of percentage points as a school is valuable time that I would frankly rather put into planning lessons.

I think that, while there is

I think that, while there is a great deal of value in looking at our assessment practices, and adopting new ones, many of our conversations do seem to be connected with results on the provincial test. As long as the public face of school districts (and, implicitly, school quality) is presented through school rankings, I fear we will never get to the heart of the assessment conversation.

Thanks for sharing your experience!

I think it is important to

I think it is important to make the distinction between assessment, evaluation and reporting.  High quality assessment - consisting of observations, conversations and products that match the learning targets - serve to inform and move learning forward.

I agree with Zoe that there has been a great deal of progress made over the last decade in these areas. We also have a long way to go. Clearly the situation you refer to involves teachers and administrators who are only able to "talk the talk".

Yes, there are practitioners out there that place "covering the curriculum" above all else. There are also growing numbers who are blending high quality instruction with high quality, timely and responsive assessment. I honestly believe they go hand in hand. You can't have quality assessment with mediocre teaching, and I’d probably say you can’t have mediocre assessment with high quality teaching.

I agree with the distinctions

I agree with the distinctions that you have made around assessment, evaluation and reporting. I also agree that we are doing a better job...gradually...of bringing those distinctions to life in our classrooms. Other ideas that have accompanied these changes have helped to personalize and target learning. There are many teachers who have really tried to embrace and enact these ideas in their own teaching practice. 

I guess the question that continues to press on my brain has to do with whether or not the increased focus on assessment and evaluation is leading us to the type of classrooms and the type of teaching that we would like to see in the 21st century. Are there deeper changes to the way that schools are organized, to the ways that students are organized within them, and to the ways that teachers are permitted to do their work that will allow the new assessment and evaluation ideas to flourish more readily and more freely?

There are many teachers out there that will make things work in spite of the challenges (some, because of the challenges). But, again, are we putting the cart before the horse?

I certainly agree with the

I certainly agree with the previous comment and think it would be useful in this discussion to clearly distinguish between formative assessment for feedback and summative assessment for evaluation

The press for reform in Canada over the past decade has been for more formative assessment to improve student learning as it is in process.  I believe most of this thread of discussion originates with the 1998 paper by Black and Wiliam (http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/assessment/files/2009/02/blackbox_art...).

The focus on summative assessment, which occurs after the fact, originates in the neo-liberal market approach to school reform. We have had a relatively light dose of this ill-conceived program here in Canada and Fullan has recently stated quite categorically that it cannot succeed as the primary means of improving student learning (http://www.michaelfullan.ca/home_articles/SeminarPaper204.pdf) so I would hope we don't head any further down that wasteful and harmful road.

Confining our focus to formative assessment, however, still leaves a significant bundle of practical questions about how it is best embedded in instruction, how it can be done without being an additional drain on teacher time and energy, how students can self-assess as part of the formative process, how parents can share in the information flow and how enhanced formative assessment and feedback throughout the learning process can decrease the need for summative assessment for evaluation (although a certain amount will clearly remain essential).

There is also the question of what needs to be assessed. Clearly academic learning as intended by the curriculum is important, but we also need to monitor important learning outcomes that are not as easily observed and described, such as the skills of critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration and so on. Further, as shown by CEA's own research, we need to monitor student engagement (which is the necessary precursor to learning) so that as teachers we can adapt our practices to increase engagement and so that we can provide feedback to students about their engagement as we work to develop their self-regulation.

Thanks for your comments

Thanks for your comments Bruce; your experience and insights are very much appreciated. The "bundle of questions" that you outline are important and, for me, highlight the tension that exists between well-intentioned and well-conceived theory and the complexities of day-to-day practice. Frankly, I don't think that our school systems, as they are currently organized, are very helpful in helping us work through these questions.

It's my experience that, on the ground, most teachers struggle with the ideals of good quality formative assessment that provides timely feedback to students, informs practice and allows for ongoing communication with parents. I think that time limitations, curriculum overload and the diverse needs of students take their toll on even the most well-intentioned of us.

I also appreciate the perspective on the skills and learning outcomes that might defy easy observation. I think that the "new wine in old wine skins" metaphor is appropriate here!

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