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Assessment

Posted By: melvin pontious on June 6, 2003
 
While the different perspectives on assessment expressed in many articles, books, and studies are varied, they are usually framed on the premise that it is the job of the teacher to devise better and more elaborate ways to "take the temperature" of the students. In the view of many, this focus on testing and grading has distorted education. Though we may think we are helping students toward mastery, test scores and grades have instead become the targets for both teachers and students. We have for years been told this indirectly by students when they ask, "Will this be on the test?" (Did we do that as students?) They recognize this as a game, and we teachers abet in this fraud, probably because that is the way we were taught AND were taught to teach.

There is better way. Instead of developing more and better ways to "do to" students, we must realize that those bodies in front of us are learning machines. Although all of our students have different motivational "hot buttons," all have at least three in common - the itch to learn, to be regarded as an adult, and to have less external influences controlling their lives. (We can all remember that!) These are not whims but strong survival instincts hard wired into our brains. When our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, those who matured quickly and had the will and wit to learn about the environment - where the good food was and where the dangerous animals were - and control that environment or accommodate to it were the ones who survived. Over the eons the gene pool has been thereby enriched by those who wanted to be "grown up;" to learn why, how, and where; and to be more in control of their lives.

While this can be a problem to parents and teachers who must answer the "why" questions of the young and cope with the drive for independence of the later years, this can be the means for intrinsic motivation in school. Music and art teachers with whom I have been working achieve this by involving students directly in the instruction/learning/assessment process. Before beginning a learning project based on selected standards, the teacher and students discuss and come to consensus on the important focal points and what those points would look like at different levels of proficiency. In this way the students internalize the learning targets. As part of the process they regularly assess their own and perhaps their peers' progress throughout the project. At this point supportive teacher feedback (respectful of the students' views) on both product and assessment helps them focus further efforts more efficiently. At any point in time, then, the students and the teacher know where the students are in relation to mastery. This is performance assessment. It is probably more correctly termed "direct assessment" instead of "authentic assessment," but this is a matter of semantics.

Because this process helps the students direct their own learning (more control), takes their views seriously (adult status), they are motivated to take more ownership of their own learning.

The initial subject of this discussion was testing and grading, and the above might seem to have taken a detour. This was deliberate. At bottom the educational enterprise is concerned with student learning, and we have erred in assuming that test scores and grades are true measures of learning. The above process leads the students into active participation in their learning, with the teacher acting as facilitator, not adversary. All of the teachers with whom I work have to give grades, but this is done by both students and teacher in conference. The teachers find the students to be remarkably forthright in assessing themselves. The main point of difference occurs when the students rate themselves lower than the teacher.

In "Assessment in Context: The Alternative to Standardized Testing" (Changing Assessments: Alternative Views of Aptitude, Achievement, and Instruction, ed. Bernard Gifford and Mary Katherine O'Connor. Boston: Kluwer Academic Pub. 1992), Howard Gardner suggests (p. 90) that because of this use of assessment in the service of learning, "the need for formal tests might atrophy altogether."

This will not satisfy those whose main interest is "accountability." How will we know that such ratings and grades are comparable and represent solid learning? The answer to this is already used in assessing and rating essays, music contests, and juries in art and music. Teachers meet, examine student work, and come to consensus on student work that outstanding, proficient, not quite there yet, etc. Such a process is also the most productive teacher development activity. And since this is the way that art, music, and performance on the job is done in the real world, why wouldn't it be better to determine mastery from how well students can apply knowledge and skills in a given situation appropriately and successfully rather than how well they select a response from a list of options? It would not furnish the "solid" numbers of a standardized test that politicians could use in order to "point with pride" or "view with alarm" for the next election, but it would result in a better educational result. It seems to me that this is the area that needs our best thinking, not better ways to "do to" students.

I truly believe we will not reform education until assessment becomes a comfortable, non-threatening tool for students to use in advancing their own learning (and are motivated to do so). This overweening focus by our "education politicians," the media, and the public on more and "better" tests and better ways to ingrain in students our opinions of their quality through grades is quite antithetical to the notion of eager students, life-long learning, and our pious catechism, "all children can learn."
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 "Authentic" Assessment, Grades, and Standards by Duane Swacker on April 18, 2003
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