ExamI spend a lot of time thinking about assessment, not just because I hate marking (which I really do), but because it determines so much of what I do as a teacher. As a less experienced educator I actually dropped content that students loved from my course just because I did not know how to assess it in a way that would make my school happy. This was obviously crazy, but I just did not know how to fight the machine in a convincing way, so I had to bend. This content has since come back in, and I am now simply not assessing it, a position I can happily defend.

Part of the problem with assessment is that it seeks to take the most beautiful, creative act: building knowledge, and stamp it into something simple, objective and comparable. We are told to turn complex, awesome human beings into a number, and then to stack them up so we know who is good and who is bad. Is it any wonder that students hate school, suffer from anxiety and don’t want to become life long learners?

Over the past two years I have been experimenting with a range of assessment approaches, trying to find something better. Working through ideas such as mass assessment, visual self assessment and slang assessment (giving grades from WTF to FTW or LOL to OMG) has led me to a new tool for this year: the Visual Assessment Guide. And whilst this isn’t final, I think it is a real improvement, a step in the right direction.

As I lay in bed tonight fighting off jet lag, it suddenly became clear to me why traditional assessment is so terrible, and what it is that I have been trying to achieve in fighting the status quo. The thoughts looked something like this Venn diagram:
Assessment Venn DiagramIn this model, the three circles mean the following :

  • Meaning: the assessment is authentic, relates to students’ lives and captures something important about the student themselves.
  • Ease-Of-Use: students and teachers find the process of assessment tolerable and it’s benefits outweigh its costs.
  • Objectivity: the results are comparable and consistent, they tie tightly to levels and descriptors.

The key here is that I believe we can never actually get to Area 1: this is the promised land, but it is just not possible. Of the three outcomes, two will always preclude the third. As an incomplete proof, consider that we can find some of the following examples of such assessments in the real world:

  • Area 2 (Ease-Of-Use + Objectivity) – quizzes, standardised tests, external examinations and other traditional forms of assessment.
  • Area 3 (Meaning + Objectivity) – complex rubrics such as APP (which students and teachers generally struggle to understand and apply).
  • Area 4 (Meaning + Ease-Of-Use) – verbal assessment, peer assessment and the kind of visual assessment mentioned above (http://rossparker.org/visual-assessment-guide/).

But where are the examples of Area 1? Personally, I have yet to see anything which comes close, but this is not a surprise if you agree with the axiom that it is impossible.

So, this leaves us educators with a stark and clear choice: what is more important to us, ranking and labelling students like livestock, or giving assessments that students can learn from and grow through. To me there is no choice, and my assessments this year will follow from this conclusion. There will be a mix of approaches, styles and methods, but in the end, meaning and ease-of-use will always trump objectivity. For, ultimately, no number or score can ever tell you anything really useful about any of my students, such as how happy, confident or personable they are.

Note: I know this is just one more step in the larger transition to a post-industrial model of education, and currently falls short of meeting the very industrial needs of higher education entry. Obviously this means it is incomplete for education as a whole, but for my own classroom, I am happy to proceed. I wonder, though, how it might scale?

Credit: Final Exam image from Wikipedia, shared under PD.