Vaguely seeking clarity: assessment in education 2016

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.
—Jacques Barzun

Assessment in education (primarily within the public system) has become a political football unlike any other. Through any number of assessments – whether local, provincial or international – various constituencies either live in fear of, or celebrate, the release of the latest “results”.

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“Results” is in quotation marks here to indicate how difficult this term has become. To be fair, perhaps it has always been a more complicated term than was once allowed but the modern determination to parse and to dissect the achievement (or lack of the same) on any number of standardized assessments is both strenuous and relentless.

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Those who are old enough might hearken back to a supposed golden age where students were assigned a letter grade or a percentage. I say “supposed” because it doesn’t take a great deal of argument to convince someone that such a method of reporting can mean a great many different things. One persons “A” is another person’s “C” you might say.

While this clearly indicates the developing sense over the years of a need to offer a more precise and objective evaluation of student progress, as with so many things, the net result, in my estimation, has been negative. To put it another way, as I’ve watched what has unfolded re evaluation and assessment throughout my career and beyond, the cure has proven, again and again, to be far worse than the disease.

Objectivity has about as much substance as the Emperor’s new clothes.
-Connie Miller

While this situation can be blamed on any number of factors, a key element, I believe, is the ascendancy in the popular imagination of all things “objective”. In essence, a move has been afoot for a very long time to supplant human expertise and the exercise of judgement for what is held to be objective measures of just about anything. As a side note, one of the last redoubts of human judgement is the court system where the onus is on a judge to determine – in anything but a jury trial – the guilt or innocence of an accused as well as the sentence imposed should an accused be found guilty.

Conservative forces throughout the U.S. and Canada have been great proponents of mandatory minimums for any number of crimes, the explanation being variations on the “tough on crime” mantra. While that might sound good to some ears, all I hear is an ideological unwillingness to accept the informed judgement of those best placed to make judgements, namely, JUDGES! If it should happen that a given decision is deemed truly objectionable, it can be appealed. And so it should be.

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As for education, time was that the assessment of student progress was left exclusively to teachers, largely at the classroom level. Students came to class, teachers taught to a quite rigidly prescribed curriculum, teachers tested in various ways, a “grade” was assigned.

The unfortunate truth (and yet, an unavoidable one, I would argue) is that not all teachers are created equal. But then, neither are doctors, lawyers, engineers, carpenters, wait staff – add anyone you would like to the list! Seemingly we allow for such differences in every other instance. Education alone, it seems to me, has reached a place where every child is somehow supposed to be provided a uniquely tailored experience where, regardless of teacher, school, or any other factor, he/she can achieve certain “outcomes”.

Reality should be intruding by now and, if you are reading this, you are saying (hopefully) something along the line of “well that doesn’t seem realistic; not everyone can be expected to be the same (add or alter where needed but I suspect the point is clear).

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Perhaps the greatest irony at the heart of so much theory in education these days is the assertion that all children are unique even as schools seek to ensure uniform “outcomes” for all students.

Which brings us to “outcomes”, the vagary at the heart of modern assessment, at least the assessment we see in New Brunswick. I can’t comment on Math results on provincial assessments since I do not pretend to have any expertise in the area. As for English, I taught high school English for 28 years (the same at summer school for 7), worked on development teams for the Grade 11 English assessment for a number of years, “assessed those exams (as well as the current grade 9 English Language Proficiency Assessments) for more than half my career – you get the picture.

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So, as one professional no longer working in the system, I would like to say: “outcomes” are so vague and open to interpretation that they do not provide the kind of guidance a teacher needs when it comes to devising a curriculum. I believe with my heart, mind and soul that young children, especially, need clarity when it comes to expectations. “Outcomes” breed a vagueness in assessment that does not allow a student to know clearly where weaknesses need to be addressed. Conversely, they fail to provide an understandable account of strengths and “success” if you will.

However much modern educational theorists like to decry “grading” as harmful to self-esteem, failing to account for the “multiple intelligences” in each of us, etc., human beings do better when expectations are clear and the bar they have to reach is well-defined. Currently, one of the few indicators we have of such a measure even being allowable is the provincial assessment program. Even then, all we have is a statement of percentage deemed successful. Good luck to anyone trying to figure out just what it means to BE successful. That determination has be to left to the “professionals”. The rest of us simply wouldn’t understand.

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