“Assessment” is Ruining Education!

“‘Assessment’ is Ruining Education.”

There I said it!  As this thought sprints mischievously through my mind… often, I challenge it.  How could assessment be anything bad?  Isn’t it critical to know what students know? To have feedback about whom we are reaching and what is actually having an impact?  Each time I am surprised by a student’s assessment results, I scold myself for my lack of passion about assessment, thinking, “Ah, you could have missed that without this assessment.”  And yet, how much do assessments lead me astray, if I were to be totally loyal to them?

Here, I must admit that it is too simple to make a judgment about “assessment” as valuable, pointless, or down right destructive. I can talk to students about “test taking skills,” (following formal staff meeting concerns around “test taking skills,”) while I work to control my eye rolling and suggest that they see it as a game that could have an impact on their future choices.  On the other hand, I work with students on opening up and being clear about sharing their understanding of skills and concepts on assessments, setting anxiety and ego aside for the goal of clarity and informing their support systems. They understand this perspective, but do not trust the idea that as assessment is simply feedback.  It is a judgment, a decision about their raw intelligence.  Even when the evidence is against this summation, it is the natural assumption. All of our creation and reflection is assessment and yet I feel like I am cheating and lazy when I make that claim formally!

Really, I am thinking more about the assessment that exists instead of thoughtful learning opportunities and is primarily an attempt to validate students’ use of time and show a third party what has been accomplished.  I often think of all we could accomplish if we were not trying to show that we were doing so!  This brings me to a recent podcast episode of Edtech Weekly in which John, Jen, and Dave discussed money and education, which led to thoughts related to Dave’s open course on Knowledge and Learning Analyticshttp://www.learninganalytics.net.   They were well joined by Rick Schwier and Zac Chase.  In the conversation a question was posed about how possible is it to know what students have truly learned… to really prove it.  When research is funded they ask for outcomes, the funding can drive the the direction of research and development and also structure the format of outcomes.  Those outcomes are then often poorly interpreted into generalized, inappropriate, and simplistic actions and decisions around teaching and learning.

It seems to me that the type of assessment that truly informs educational practice, within the goal of simultaneously educating, is an art form more than a science and while is can be a science it then becomes so time consuming that it actually begins to take away from learning opportunities. 

I remember having a boss once who required everyone to do a reflection exercise of writing down what we were actually doing every 15 minutes, to get a sense of our use of time.  Keep in mind I was in a classroom with pre-school aged children.  I think back on this and wonder how one ever could have thought that this was a useful study, unless, of course, we could mess with the space-time continuum in order to insert five minutes for writing in between every 15 minutes of regular activity. This is somehow reminiscent of the sleep torture my mother (quite fairly) inflicted on me when, at age 8, I insisted on making a double batch of chocolate chip cookies and she woke me every twelve minutes to switch the baking trays.  At times assessment for accountability often feels like this… but without any chocolate chip cookies at the end!

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