Friday, January 25, 2013

What are we assessing?

I just spoke to a teacher about her assessment practices in her middle school classroom.  "How can I assess my students?" she said "I can't place judgement on their work, only they know if they were putting in their full effort or not."  She went on further to explain that "I don't want to define them, they need to learn to measure their own success."

The whole process of grading is so emotional.  It is as if we as people are being judged on our grades, on our test scores, on how well we performed on this one particular test.  Standardized tests have been defining our schools for many years.  We need a way to make sure all fourth graders are achieving at the same level, that no one is falling through the cracks.  But have we gone too far?  Have we reached a tipping point when city budgets are set based on eight year old's scores on a test?

Is there a way to assure that all of our students are achieving without pitting them or ourselves against one another?  Is there a way to help our students learn the value of work without imposing our own definitions of success on them?  Can we assure that all children are learning and growing without making the stakes so high that the success defines their entire being?

I think there is room for a healthy voice in this conversation.  We all strive to be acknowledged, we all need feedback and we all want to know that we have accomplished something.  I firmly believe in authentic assessment.  I think that students, just like adults, need to know when they have accomplished something and how they were successful.  We can give students feedback in an authentic way, judging their work over time and their consolidation of information.  Looking at drafts of work and portfolios of different pieces over time are two ways to allow students to show their own success over time.  Presenting a student with a rubric that shows the criteria we are looking for allows our students to know what they can do to be successful.

Translating this idea to a large scale is where the problem comes in.  It is much easier for a machine to grade standardized tests than to evaluate the progress of a portfolio over time.  This is why we need to trust teachers.  We need to properly prepare  teachers, support them, and trust that they know how to truly assess their own students.  If we know that teachers are properly prepared to give and grade assessments then we can rest assured that our students are getting the proper feedback on their own learning, teachers understand where they need to teach for the children to grow and we can be assured that everyone is on track.

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