Sunday, 29 October 2017

Assessment: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Last week I heard a collective ‘hooray’ from teachers and many parents when our new Education Minister, the Hon Chris Hipkins announced that national standards will be scrapped. Although this article refers to national standards, it is more a cautionary note on how we go about assessment often ‘boxing’ children into grades.

Last term I came across an email in my inbox from a Year 5 (age 9) student. He was sharing a piece of writing via google docs with me so I replied and over the next few weeks we engaged in this email exchange. One day I asked him to visit me in my office and share his work with me. For the purposes of this recount and to keep the boy’s privacy intact, I will call the boy Tom. I could tell Tom was intelligent and had plenty of potential but yet seemed somewhat hesitant. His writing’s surface features (grammar and punctuation) needed some work but his ideas and general story structure was sound.

I became curious and did a bit of background on him via academic progress in literacy, report grades via national standards and chatted to his teacher. From my inquiry it was clear Tom was socially well adjusted with plenty of friends, he had scored well in reading comprehension via his PAT (national norm testing) and he was well enough motivated to do well at school.
One day I asked Tom, do you think you are good at writing? He quickly responded, ‘no’!
I asked him why he had come to that conclusion and he replied, “My report said I am below the national standard in writing.”

Unfortunately Tom is not the only student to view themselves as not good at this or that because of being labelled this way via a grade. What a terrible thing to do to young people who developmentally need to believe in themselves to take learning risks, to feel confident to share with their peers etc
A short time later I read an article written by Prof. Jo Boaler from Standford University and co-founder of   Math Class Doesn’t Work. Here’s the Solution

The article’s fundamental theme is when students know they are going to be graded, their performance usually goes down. The article is based not on opinion but on research and although it focuses on maths education, it is fair to say this research runs true across the curriculum. Boaler’s article argues that maths teachers who replace grades with constructive written comments increase student’s learning.

Grading promotes a performance culture in schools which is counter-productive to optimal learning conditions.

In her article Boaler tells the following story:  “An undergraduate recently told me that when she writes down her ideas, even when working alone, she expects someone to judge her. She’s unable to think freely because she’s afraid of writing something that isn’t “smart enough.” This kind of thought paralysis is the direct result of our emphasis on performance, which we urgently need to dial back. My research on math learners suggests that when students think they’re in class to learn — to explore ideas and think freely — they understand more and achieve at higher levels than when they think the point is to get questions right.” (1)

This is a telling commentary and not uncommon for teachers to observe and intuitively know. In a recent blog post I said that some schools both nationally and internationally have been able to ‘see the woods for the trees’ and been able to par back testing and other formal assessments and maintain their focus on holistic education where encouraging student agency, inquiry and engaging contexts for learning are at the heart of every day. This frees up learning time and allows teachers to focus on more powerful methods of gathering understanding of where individuals are at via dialogue between the teacher and students. The information gathered can be used to inform next learning steps. (formative assessment)  This co-construction of learning puts students at the heart of the learning and is going to be far more powerful for the student than a grade. The unrelenting pressure some schools feel to gather evidence to justify their position has become destructive. (2)

“This is not about being soft and fluffy. It’s about believing that listening to pupils matters. The assumption that you can reliably put a number against what a child is capable of is flawed and dangerous. Potentially, it leads to the individual and the people around them having a very limited set of expectations.” (3)

I was very interested to read a recent NZ Education Gazette article on Tapping Into GAME LITERACY.
The article refers to the many serious education researchers looking at video games asking ‘what is it about games that keeps people engaged, involved, progressing and persisting?’ One of Rachel Bolstad’s (senior researcher for NZCER [NZ Council for Education Research]) lines of inquiry was looking at ‘why are kids prepared to fail in gaming but not in learning?’
The students “talked about how in games, you get a lot more instant feedback, that helps you to better understand - if you fail to achieve a goal within a game environment, you’re getting some kind of feedback that lets you know how you went wrong, or how close you were, for example.  They also talked about the fact that you can just repeat something over and over again, until you get it. There are no consequences.
They talked also about how, in school, failure is quite often framed in a negative way. It’s not just that they’re failing to do something, but they can feel like they themselves are failures, which is really demotivating. In a game, it doesn’t feel that way.” (4)

Assessment, be it diagnostic, formative or summative is very important but it needs to be a tool to inform the next stages of learning rather than a marker that for many, defines their view of themselves.

On a broader front, it seems to me that although there is a clarion call for ‘life-long’ learning,  schools are feeling the pressure to make certain things happen from pre-school to Year 13. (approx 18 years old) The reality is, many young people do not realise their learning potential until their mid-twenties. Young people need time to grow without the intense pressure to jump all the hurdles before age 18 or be seen as a failure. Many young people feel they need to have their qualifications ‘nailed’ and their career mapped out by age 18. This is fine for some but a number of young people need more time and a society who has a longer and more sustainable view of what success looks like.

Schools need assessment data for individuals, cohorts and the school itself to use as part of the package of tools to engage in inquiry with the never ending goal of striving for the nirvana of the perfect environment for learning. Nationally we need bench marks to see how we compare internationally as well as to reflect on progress so macro strategic decisions can be made. Parents want and need feedback, but it is a sad state of affairs when a 9 year old child has himself pigeon-holed as a poor writer due to a grade on his report form, particularly when all the evidence demonstrates our profession knows better than to this. (thank goodness this national standards approach has now been buried)

Schools need to be accountable and of course education needs rigour but it is now time to put our energy into what we know makes the best difference to students’ learning. A successful learner is not necessarily someone scoring good grades but someone that has been encouraged and  supported  to be creative and solution orientated to overcome learning challenges. This resilience and confidence to take risks, to actively listen to feedback and to seek help as required in the quest to grow understanding is always going to win out versus a learner full of anxiety over grades.

Warren Owen

(1)          Boaler, J   Math Class Doesn’t Work. Here’s the Solution p.1       
(2)         Warren’s Blog   The Hurrier I Go the Behinder I Get
(3)         Alison Peacock “The idea you can put a number against a child’s ability is flawed and dangerous.”
(4)        NZ Education Gazette article on Tapping Into GAME LITERACY.    16 October 2017   Vol. 96 Number 18

Picture credit: Google Images.