Assessment in education: say what?

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
Kofi Annan

I read a report in the local paper recently that awakened my frustration with the manner in which the press frequently covers matters related to education. Implicitly (and almost explicitly) the article lends support to the claim that “time on task” is the answer to virtually any existing educational deficit. By doing so such articles continue the trend of simplistic analysis of a very complex issue. It is the instructional equivalent of the oft-paraded boast that New Brunswick high schools graduate more students today than they did 30 years ago. Neither time on task (as a solution) nor graduation statistics (as proof of success in the system) provides the kind of detailed analysis of the system that might help people understand how broken that system really is.

If we still had investigative journalism that could take the time needed, a story could be told of empty curricula wrapped in theoretical educational dogmatism, schools overburdened with the attempted implementation of social engineering, and classrooms as sites for ongoing experimentation in service of someone’s pet educational theory. It is far sadder and more dire than a simple addition of days can indicate.

As education has struggled, at the university level, to present itself as a viable social science in its own right – on a par with psychology, sociology, history, etc – it has been driven increasingly by the desire to present its claims as rooted in research and the scientific method. In itself, this isn’t so bad. It has long been my contention, however, that positioning education in such a way does little to actually serve students. For all of the talk of “student-centred” instruction, the theories that underpin the actual practice of such instruction view young people more as lab rats or commodities than they do complex and diverse human beings.

How appropriate that just around the time I was thinking about this issue the Department of Education should release the latest results of its provincial assessment program. Be prepared for any number of follow-up editorials and/or commentaries pointing to the number of days students are out of the classroom, whether it be because teachers are involved in some form of professional development or a particularly harsh winter. In either case (or any other), it remains my contention that pointing to “time on task” is nothing more than continuing evidence of the lack of political will necessary if we are to take a hard look at the state of our educational system.

Consider: the prevailing view in our system – for the better part of three decades now – is that holding a student back a grade when he/she has failed to meet expectations is tantamount to inhumane. What is far more destructive, in my estimation, is moving a student forward into an environment where the resources to address any deficit are lacking. The young person in question falls further behind with each passing year but “accommodations” are made to ensure that forward progress is not interrupted. I can’t avoid mentioning the occasions, when I was teaching, where transcripts from middle school occasionally revealed students entering high school without having passed a single course in Grade 8. From the system’s perspective, it was simply time for such a student to move on.

Such practices as “anecdotal report cards” – ostensibly an improvement over the old percentage or letter grades – simply obscure further an already murky picture of achievement. Teachers write accounts of student progress in light of “outcomes” – a term I personally despise because it does not offer anything definitive – rather than assign a “grade”, something that high schools, universities and community colleges will demand as a student moves through our educational system.

And then the anomaly: amidst all the “outcomes”, along comes the provincial assessment results. Reported how? As percentages! Now, admittedly, these percentages are not percentages as most of us of a certain age would remember them. These are not marks per se; rather, they indicate the percentage of students who have achieved an “appropriate” level of literacy. Now I ask you: how many people are truly aware of that distinction? For most, using the grade 2 reading assessment as an example, the results mean that 73.8% of students “passed”. Things are apparently looking up by Grade 9: 80.4% of those students “passed”.

But let’s look at this from the perspective of another measure. We routinely hear that New Brunswick has an adult functional illiteracy rate of between 50-60%. In other words, when people find themselves in the real world of the workplace and day-to-day living, some 50-60% of adults struggle with basic tasks such as reading instructions, filling out an application, etc. Based upon provincial results, surely that functional illiteracy rate should be closer to 20%?

At what point will someone point to this glaring discrepancy? Surely it suggests that something is amiss in our assessment practices at the very least. But, more importantly, these assessments prevent the kind of careful scrutiny of programs that might lead to real improvement. Where you might ask?

Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. Teachers and educational systems need to reacquire an appreciation for fundamental skills. “Educational practice” is virtually the sole concern of education programs at universities. What has been lost in our current system is concern for what it is we expect students to KNOW. Until such time as we return to an appreciation of the central place that knowledge plays in nurturing reading and writing ability, math skills and, most importantly, critical thinking, the disparity between reported “results” on provincial assessments and more objective measures of adult literacy and numeracy will remain. In fact, results massaged in the service of political optics will probably increase any such disparity. In the immediate term, the student suffers; in the long term, we all do.


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