Measurement and Assessment: Not punishment but celebration
December 22, 2006
The word assessment arouses a variety of responses in teachers and students, but it is safe to say that none of them are happy ones. For some it represents a punishing ordeal, for others an indictment of their faults or defects, and for still others, the oppressive weight of an inhumane and usually highly-technologized administrative mandate. Results are used to celebrate a tiny fraction of the privileged while confronting the rest with their inherent “inadequacies,” insufficient “effort,” and lack of status. Posing behind a facade of “objectivity,” and “standards,” judgments are made that derail lives, create suffering, and reify social inequalities. It is costly, labor-intensive, and punishing. And all of this is entirely unnecessary.
Learning is inherently joyful; observing and fostering learning is inherently gratifying. So the process of representing development, learning, and achievement should be a celebration, not a sentence. When a small child is learning to ride a bicycle, the mastery of new skills, knowledge, and embodied experience is deeply satisfying and motivating. There may be frustrating stages, getting started, managing turning and stopping, maintaining balance, but they are challenges and obstacles that are purposefully met and ultimately overcome, bringing triumph and excitement. The parent or guide provides encouragement, affirmation of the child’s capabilities, a bit of guidance, and just enough scaffolding to support the discovery process, laughing happily with the child when each difficulty is overcome. Struggles, gaps, mistakes, and setbacks are considered natural parts of the process, to be met with curiosity and attention. The role of feedback is simply to affirm the developments so far, and point to the next challenges to be met, while mobilizing and informing the support needed to meet them.
We can do this just as easily in educational assessment, if we can only see the assessment task this clearly. The Learning Record is a superb way to accomplish our assessment goals, engaging teachers, parents, and students in recognizing and representing accurately the stages of ongoing unfolding of development and achievement, identifying the next set of challenges, suggesting resources and activities in support of learning. This is done in a positive spirit of looking for evidence of what students know and can do, and where they can best put their energy next, rather than focusing all of our attention on their errors, shortcomings, and “deficits.” We can at the same time maintain high expectations and rigorous disciplinary standards, based on our wider perspective, longer experience, and deeper understanding. The Learning Record serves to illuminate how students are moving toward and meeting those standards and expectations, without setting ideals for perfection and then punishing students for not measuring up to them.
We can do this on the small scale, in classrooms, and quite validly and reliably at much larger scales: for departments, schools, and institutions. When the public appetite for standardized testing starts to wane, when the culture is choking on the human, social, institutional, and economic waste this factory model of corporate testing produces, there will be a felt sense: there must be a better way. We don’t need to wait. There is a better way now. We can document with rigor and validity student progress and achievement in naturally-occurring activities, both formal and informal, provide public accountability, inform teaching, and support all students, at a fraction of the cost of standardized testing. Because this is a public process of documenting learning and conducting assessment, it is inclusive of students, teachers, parents, researchers, administrators, policy-makers.
Let’s bring joy back into the world of teaching and learning by focusing on what really matters most: teachers and students and parents working closely together, learning from each other, and documenting this happy process. Administrators attending to and supporting this process with respect and gratitude. Policy-makers and communities confident and happy that schools are thriving. This is not some utopian ideal: it is available to us right now.