Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Three Most Important Words in Education: Assessment, Assessment, Assessment.

Today (August 10, 2011), Alfie Kohn posted a piece entitled, "Teaching Strategies That Work! (Just Don't Ask 'Work to Do What?')"
As I read it (with the usual enjoyment and anger Alfie Kohn's posts elicit from me), I found myself thinking about this paragraph in particular: "Thus, 'evidence' may demonstrate beyond a doubt that a certain teaching strategy is effective, but it isn't until you remember to press for the working definition of effectiveness -- which can take quite a bit of pressing when the answer isn't clearly specified -- that you realize the teaching strategy (and all the impressive sounding data that support it) are worthless because there's no evidence that it improves learning. Just test scores." 

In countless arguments I've had on-line with people about education and assessment in general, and mathematics education and testing in particular, invariably my antagonists (and I use that word advisedly) would reject any curricular materials, pedagogical strategy, tool, task, theory, activity, etc., by stating, "Where is your gold standard research that shows that X is effective?" And as night follows day, when pressed, they would make clear that inside that "gold standard" was what for them comprised a platinum standard: only 'objective' (and hence machine-scored, multiple choice tests if given on a wide-scale, or, if the assessment was small and local (e.g., in one classroom), only tests that were scored with no partial credit, no discretionary judgment or rubrics for the scorer, but rather those that had single answers that were either 100% right or 100% wrong, so that the results couldn't be shaped by the scorer (who might, of course, be inclined to be subjective or, even worse, fuzzy!) 

Now, I think we all want reliable and valid tests, but I find it intriguing that these folks were SO suspicious of any test that allowed for a "human" factor in the scoring (let alone one that had human factors in the tasks themselves, of course!), and so absolutely convinced that given practicality, costs, and the fuzziness factor they so abhorred, only those nationally-normed, multiple-choice standardized tests would count. They were the true measurement of anything one might wish to measure in education. 

Alfie Kohn raises the opposite question: what good are your 'results' if all they are is improving test scores, not learning? And these ideologues I finally gave up arguing with about 15 months or so ago only want to talk about just that: test scores, and a very particular type of test at that. With no wiggle room at all. As an advocate for increased intelligent use of meaningful formative assessment (see the work of Paul Black, Dylan Wiliam, et al.), I find myself realizing with increasing dismay that everything I value about education is precisely what is dismissed by the folks I'm trying to either convince or, yes, defeat in the court of not only reason, public opinion, and school policy, but in the halls of government and the meeting rooms of the monied and powerful. If I and others who agree with my viewpoint are not able to get people to see that improving scores on lousy tests is an utter waste of time by ANY reasonable criteria one might choose to use, then US public education is doomed.

 And we cannot afford to let that happen, to allow control to be ceded to self-interested greedy profiteers and people with various political, social, or especially religious agendas that are at odds with our democratic core values. Assessment, what it means, and how we do it isn't the ONLY issue we need to struggle with, but it tends to be the one that touches upon where the rubber meets the road for a lot of folks.
Naturally, I agree with people like Alfie Kohn, Marian Brady, and others who want to focus clearly on WHAT we're teaching and why we are teaching it. There's no getting away from content and the curriculum that frames it. But I think assessment remains key because it is still the one thing that people are guaranteed to pay attention to: kids, parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, media, and the general public. If we can't win the assessment fight, we're in very deep trouble.

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