Are assessing what really matters for future success of our students? This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.
“We know that we’re not assessing many of the things that really matter for future success.”
I’ve written about this many times and am almost finished with a new book on the subject of assessment. Yet, I have seen this happen countless times. We assess what is easy to assess instead of what matters most to us. Sometimes people object, noting that we will soon prioritize what is easy to assess over what we value the most. Each time, the advocates assure us that they (and we collectively) will not let that happen. The assessment is added and, over the next year or two, the priorities and values change, aligning with those items that are easy to assess. It happens all the time.
Or, there is the flip side. We argue that what matters most is not easily assessed. As such, we give up on assessment. We don’t measure much of anything. We probably still use grades or something similar, but we downplay it. Maybe there are required measures but again, we dismiss the numbers as not being about what matters to us the most.
The problem is that measurement matters. Or, more specifically, feedback matters. Feedback helps us learn and grow. When it is absent, our growth sometimes slows down or even comes to a halt. Simply documenting what is happening and measuring progress toward a goal can increase motivation for people. This is why I am not ready to give up on assessment. It is just that we want to commit ourselves to not going the easy route, not giving ourselves to that which is most easily measured, not letting the assessment tail wag the “what really matters in education” dog.
I’m convinced that this means embracing assessment as tool that serves greater goals, and giving greater attention to formative feedback and assessment than high stakes assessments. Assessment is most valuable when we use it to determine our progress toward goals that are important to us.
Start with the values an goals. Then you ask an important question. What is the absolute best evidence that someone is learning or growing in this area? Or, what is the best evidence that someone met this goal? Be completely unrealistic. Give your ideal answer even if you know that it is impossible. Once you have that answer, bring it a little closer to reality. What is the next best evidence? Keep doing this until you have something that will work, at least tentatively. Try it out, knowing that it is not perfect. Revisit it often. Critique. Hold on to it, but not too tightly. Be open to new and better ways.
Data scientists might protest. This doesn’t give us the rich and large data sets to analyze. This isn’t carefully analyzed for reliability and validity. This prevents us from generating valuable reports or looking at longitudinal data. It doesn’t let us compare across contexts as well. All of these are worthwhile critiques. Yet, we must respond with other questions. What is the purpose of assessment? Does assessment have inherent value or does its value depend upon how well is serves some other goal or agenda? If the assessment data does not help us measure what matters most for students, what is the point?