Assessment is a tool that aims to do an impossible task: figure out where a student is on the path of learning.
- NOT what direction the student is going,
- NOT how fast s/he is moving towards the goal (or if s/he’s moving at all),
- NOT how much momentum s/he has.
Does that mean there’s a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle analog at work here? I’d say that’s a legitimate hypothesis, but without testing it that would be just be an unsubstantiated claim.
Stated differently: Sure, most of our assessments are ostensibly figuring out where our students are on the path of knowledge- and skill-development (or more frequently “what they ‘know’”). But is it possible to do more?
I – a caucasian, American, middle-class male – cannot understanding the life of a female Chinese exchange student, or the unfathomable pain of a student whose skin color and gender combine to prompt so much of society to fear him and even loathe his progress. I’ve got privilege galore and don’t know what it’s like to not have it.
Similarly, we educators – who largely had it easy academically during our schooling – can never get in the head of our students, who have a vastly wide variety of thought patterns and experiences that influence their cognitive development. and know what they know or what they are thinking or where they are coming from. The best we can try is to (co-)create scenarios in which our observations suggest to us where they stand.
Assessment can be valuable when we understand its limitations. That way, a teacher’s efforts are focused on things that matter and not on what doesn’t help. What configurations do offer insights into understanding? While the specifics differ from content area to content area, here are front-runners I’ve found:
- students write their thoughts
- students represent their ideas with multiple representations
- concept development is prioritized over fact-recollection
- coherence of understanding is measured
I hear you. I’m surely not there yet, but please don’t forget what Dr. Viktor Frankl said about aiming [4 min video]. [Hover cursor here for spoiler.] Assessment can offer insights into student thinking. When I design my assessments with that goal, I better at it each time.
Coherence within Learning Environment
Coherence is king.
If an assessment tool isn’t being used to orient students and me around our learning goals, why would we use it? (I’m writing about how I’m trying to get by within the severely limited context of teaching at a traditional public school. We all know learning happens outside formal school. You may also know that there are revolutions in how learning is configured that necessitate different ways of thinking about assessment.)
Assessment is valuable when the everything else we do in the classroom is influenced by the results of an assessment. (A doctor’s not going to continue with a treatment if any early test informs her that it’s killing her patient, is she?) Assessment becomes more valuable when it has a dynamic relationship among assessment, course goals, and what people are doing.