Assessment, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Can we put new wine into old skins?

Assessment policy can provide the inspiration we need for real conversation about transformation

Well, if the level of response to my last entry is any indication, there is a significant level of passion, knowledge and commitment surrounding the current conversation about assessment and its role in the modern school. And it’s not that talking about assessment for learning, of learning and even assessment as learning is bad or even misguided. In fact, these are practices that could allow us to view and respond to students and the work that they do in enriched and more informed ways. They have the potential of focusing our vision on individual students, their needs across a variety of dimensions, and how the programs that we offer can better meet those needs.

A more robust appreciation of and dedication to authentic assessment practices may lead to educational transformation. But, I would argue that this will not happen until we address the conditions that are necessary to allow the ideas and ideals of 21st century approaches to assessment and evaluation to take root and flourish. And this is where our discussion needs to move.

Ancient wisdom warns that you can’t put new wine into old wineskins. If you try, chances are the skins are going to burst, and you’re going to lose both skin and wine. The most reasonable explanation is that old wine skins are dry and liable to crack, especially as the new wine continues to ferment.

I think that we’re seeing evidence of this as we attempt to move our teachers, parents and administrators closer to implementing some beautifully crafted policy statements on assessment and evaluation. While the policy presents a rich new vision of the work of both students and educators, my fear is that our current school infrastructure is beginning to crack under the pressure; we stand to lose both the new vision and the integrity of our schools!

So, practically speaking, what is holding educators back from fully embracing new approaches to assessment. What is holding us back from taking the time and space we need to make ongoing formative assessment part of our daily practice? What is holding us back from effectively separating the notions of assessment (gathering information about student learning) and evaluation (placing a reported value on the work that students do)?

Ancient wisdom warns that you can’t put new wine into old wineskins. If you try, chances are the skins are going to burst, and you’re going to lose both skin and wine.

I’m currently thinking of three aspects about the way we continue to “do school”. I passionately believe that if we were to re-examine our approach to these three things, we would create places and spaces that would allow us to more effectively integrate new approaches to our work.

First, authentic assessment encourages to take a “longer” view of student progress. The current practice of moving students along a continuum based on a multitude of age-defined expectations calls into question our real commitment to the idea that student learning is a diverse and complex process. In order to make room for our new assessment policies, we need to challenge the assumption that if I am 10 years old, this is what I should know and be able to do…in March!

A second aspect of school that needs to be seriously challenged–and this relates to the first–has to do with the way that we report student progress to parents and the rest of the system. The requirement to produce two or three time-bound reports has tradition on its side, but when that requirement also comes with the demand that a teacher will have covered a given percentage of the prescribed curriculum in time for each reporting period, the opportunity to “rest” with certain concepts and skills is removed. Both assessment and teaching practice lose their ability to respond if the “when” and “what” becoming defining principles.

Finally, (!)  in order for us to truly embrace the vision of assessment “for” and “as” learning, we need to open up the learning spaces in our schools. Students and teachers need to have the elbow room to develop skills and explore content in many ways. The practice of dividing curriculum into compartments, especially at very young ages, fights against the integrative underpinnings of our new assessment approaches. The more we can create learning environments that enable conceptual connection and imaginative approaches to making those connections, the easier it will be to bring our desired assessment vision to life!

We’re at an important point in terms of both policy and practice in public schooling. It’s fine to demand that educators begin to explore and integrate new ways of looking at how student work can allow us to do so much more than just assigning a mark. Unless we’re willing to take a look at the structures that enable these these ideas to ferment and mature, then there is a huge chance that we might lose the vision and the energy that has gone into this new way of thinking. Let’s make sure that our new wine is going into new, stronger wineskins. The future of the vintage AND the vessel are at stake!

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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