Taking the Limiting Practice of Assessment and Using it to Chart Limitless Potential

At this point in the semester, in all our classes we’re starting to delve into the complex mysteries of assessment in the classroom and non black-and-white it really is. This week we read “Our Words, Our Ways” from the Alberta Education catalogue along with “Learning to Love Assessment” by Carol Tomlinson. I was happy to read about the topic of assessment in a way that addresses the shortcomings of the ways that it’s been done. There have been several times through out my University career that I felt that the grade I had received was either higher or lower than the level of learning that had actually occurred. Moreover, the classes where I learn the most, the ones that really send my understanding through a metamorphoses, are also the classes that I tend to score lowest on, simply because the current grading system is more concerned with the end product, and the “percentage” of the course content that I comprehend, than the depth of journey that I’m on to make sense of the content.

The question I’ve always had however is how else can it really be done? Any other way of assessing students seems idealistic but not realistic, and seems naive to how complicated school and students can be. But then again so is traditional assessment. Here’s some of the stuff I learnt!

In order for assessment to valuable the classroom must be conducive to learning. A great classroom exhibits a) Trust and belonging b) Meaningful content c) Intelligent choices and d)Adequate time to get assignments done. One of the things that can get in the way of building this sort of environment is by utilizing anxiety driven motivations to get work handed such as late penalties. These policies, fail to recognize the complexities of why students often hand in work late. Tomlinson asks some convicting questions such as “Do late penalties produce on-time work in subsequent assignments or do they act as a disincentive for completing work?” or “Do late penalties allow for individual learning needs and personal challenges?” or “do they reflect real-world situations, e.g., does a missed deadline in a work situation result in a similar penalty?” Tomlinson suggests, and correctly so, that it’s important to emphasize content rather than timing.

“Our words, Our ways” also points out that assessment can’t be the same for every student, because each on e is coming in with a different set of life experiences and responses to the classroom. This is particularly the case with Aboriginal students, who are coming from cultures where oral and observational learning prevail over paper and pencil. Paper and pencil are the means by which we traditionally write tests, and are therefor assessed. This practice of course puts Aboriginal students at an automatic disadvantage. It’s for reasons like this that Tomlinson points out the need for differentiation, and how our assessment should be oriented in a way that informs how would should differentiate. She writes, “I’ve come to understand that learning is multidimensional and that assessment could help me understand learners as multidimensional as well.”

Some practical first steps in approaching assessment in a way that will truly tell us what kids know, as outline in “Our Words, Our Ways” is offer multiple methods of assessment, state expectations and timelines clearly, and include elements of self evaluation. No one assessment will ever be adequate to reflecting what a student has learned or is learning, so therefor it is necessary to provide a variety of opportunities for students to express their knowledge. The goal of this is not simply to find out where they’re out but it also helps us to know how to teach them better. We also have to remember the point of education and assessment is not to rank or categorize students, but as Tomlinson puts it “each student in my classes brought strengths to our work and that it was my job to bring those strengths to the surface so that all of us could benefit.”

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