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Necessary Disruption (Part 6: Assessment and Evaluation)

21st Century Learning that animates the 3 R’s through the soft skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking requires us to tackle the difficult challenge of removing curricular bloat and deepening learning through inquiry – but that is not enough.  Traditional assessment and evaluation practices are also in need of an extreme makeover, which is the focus of this penultimate entry in the Necessary Disruption series.

Evaluation is traditionally used only to assign grades for the purpose of reporting to parents and outside agencies.  This does nothing to improve learning or teaching.  Of course, students deserve to know where they stand in relation to curricular expectations, and it is perfectly reasonable for the public to ask for some reassurance that the school system is working, so evaluation has valid purposes, but supporting learning is not one of them.  Evaluation is an afterthought tacked onto the learning process rather than an integral and contributing element.  That is unfortunate, but what is more troubling is that in its current form evaluation can actually be harmful in two respects.

For students, an exclusive diet of summative evaluation tends to focus their sense of accomplishment on the marks that others provide as surrogates for their learning rather than the learning itself, which discourages them from taking on difficult learning tasks and is therefore antithetical to attempts to engage them in inquiry.  This focus on the end product rather than the process through which it is achieved is akin to a company focussing on profits rather than the quality of the goods, services and business practices that result in the profit.  It directs attention to the wrong things while neglecting the core business.  There may be short-term results in some cases, but in the long run its a losing strategy that fails because it does not enhance learning.

On the other hand, for the public, summative assessment is a reasonable way to provide a measure of accountability in one of the largest, and most expensive, arenas of government activity, but problems arise here also because of the breadth and complexity of the intended outcomes.  Simple, clear measures are understandably preferred and often they are provided despite the fact that they neither accurately nor completely represent either intended or achieved learning.  There is nothing inherently wrong with such measures – assuming they are based on the curriculum and are technically sound – but simple answers to complex questions often lead to false conclusions and misguided responses.

Would one find it appropriate to rank order the parents in a neighbourhood according to their proficiency in child rearing?  Perhaps the average of a child’s percentile score on a social skills index, an athletic proficiency test and the GPA on the school report card would tell us who is the best parent in town.  I suspect that most people would find this suggestion ridiculously naive and quickly point out its fallacies and limitations, if not its dangers.

And yet, the Fraser Institute is seen as credible when it does this for schools using an essentially meaningless statistical mishmash of a narrow range of outcomes.  This misleads both individual parents and the general public.  Another example – mercifully not practiced in Canada – is the use of standardized test results for high-stakes decision-making about school funding and teacher pay.  Standardized testing is not the villain here; it is the assumption that it can capture what is most important about learning and the misinterpretation and misuse of the results it provides.

So, while valid and potentially useful, evaluation is problematic because of the way it is sometimes used.  However, summative evaluation is not really the important issue for 21st Century Learning so I will leave it there.  It is formative assessment that is essential and that’s what I want to talk about.  First, however, let’s be clear about the distinction.  Assessment is the gathering of evidence of student learning to help a teacher understand what a student knows, does not know, is beginning to know, thinks s/he knows but has actually misconstrued, wonders about, is interested in and so on.  Assessment data can be used in many ways.  One of them is to compare what has been learned to expectations or standards in order to judge its quantity and quality in relation to what the curriculum intends.  This second step is evaluation.

The difference is far more than semantic since these two related processes have fundamentally different purposes.  Assessment is necessary to enable evaluation, but this is not its most powerful use.  What a teacher comes to understand about a student’s learning enables two much more important teaching functions.  The first is to give helpful,descriptive feedback to the student within a coaching relationship that provides acknowledgement, direction and encouragement.  The second is to determine what the teacher can do next to most effectively respond to the learning success, needs and interests of the student.  (This use of assessment to inform instruction and enhance learning is commonly referred to as assessment for learning, in contrast to assessment of learning, which is intended to provide data for summative judgments.)

Assessment of learning should continue, although it could be accomplished without consuming as much time and attention as is currently the case, but assessment for learning is the more important function and its elevation is key to 21st Century Learning.  This, I hope, sounds logical, but it is also complex and requires significant change by teachers and school systems.  Some of the change involves teachers learning new procedures and developing new skills, but the really hard part is for teachers – and equally importantly, for parents – to surface long-held assumptions and change those that have locked us into an almost exclusive focus on summative evaluation.  Unlearning of habits is very difficult at the best of times.  In this arena, the change is additionally vexing because it raises fears for many adults about loss of rigour based on subconscious attachment to flimsy views of teaching as telling and learning as listening.

Assessment for learning (AFL) must become an integral part of classroom life, but it need not take additional time.  Unlike summative evaluation, which occurs outside of instruction and thus robs time from it, formative evaluation is embedded in the learning.  Of course, this means that curriculum must be designed to incorporate it and that teachers must learn to do it, but AFL represents a change in practice rather than yet another addition.

The observations that are made and the feedback provided deal with the content of the learning but also with the process, thus helping learners to become conscious of their styles, strengths, challenges, preferences and habits.  This self-awareness is necessary for developing metacognitive control over learning behaviour (aka self-regulation) and one of the essential foundations not only for maximizing achievement in school but also for lifelong learning.

Unfortunately, other than in the primary grades, students generally get very little feedback.  What they get is marks.  These marks are “earned” through compliance, diligence and replicative performance.  They are not intended as a mirror that illuminates learning but as the“ just desserts” for students’ work that lets them know “where they stand.”  The entire ritual of reporting, and the accompanying ceremonies of recognition and reward, reinforce the idea that the purpose of schooling is for students to get good marks so that the adults can be happy and proud.  In this pseudo-economic exchange, the most grievous sin is error, and this sin is detected through evaluation, which makes students understandably nervous about a process that they have learned to see as hostile inquisition. 

Assessment for learning, on the other hand, sees students as partners rather than subjects, even co-learners in many respects, and error as a natural part of the learning process that occurs when one ventures out into the personally unknown.  In this worldview, a teacher’s primary assessment task is not merely to assign and correct, but also to provide constructive feedback that enables and encourages.  It takes time for teachers who were themselves students in schools where the summative evaluation model reigned, and who may have re-enacted that model in their own classrooms with the most sincere and positive of intentions, to reconsider it.  How much harder is it for students to believe that the ground has truly shifted and that it is now safe for them to openly share their questions and uncertainties without fear that all will be noted and held against them in the star chamber of evaluation?

In addition to being willing and able to receive feedback from a teacher, students need to learn to provide feedback to each other and to themselves.  Peer evaluation, enabled through supportive curriculum design and instruction in reasoned judgment, helps to develop critical faculties and lays the foundation for self-evaluation.  Empowering a student with the inclination and ability to self-assess, and thus to self-evaluate, is another essential step in developing the self-regulation that is required for lifelong learning.

Thoughtfully and constructively conducted, formative assessment (i.e, AFL) also helps students to develop a realistic but positive sense of self-efficacy that increases internal motivation and self-awareness that enables them to maximize their abilities by working to their strengths, knowing how to compensate for their weaknesses and skillfully selecting strategies to help them persist when they encounter challenges.  Thus, AFL is a strength-based approach (Theory Y if you like) that stands in stark contrast to the prevailing focus on remediating deficiencies (which is much more Theory X).  Both Theory X and Theory Y have their place, but 21st Century Learning puts Theory Y squarely in the foreground.

The shift from a primary focus on summative evaluation to an emphasis on embedded formative feedback is both complex and difficult, but also essential.  It is a fundamental part of the disruptive innovation that will be required in the transition to 21st Century Learning.  Therefore, it is important to think about how disruptive innovation occurs and what it will take for existing systems to engage in it – which is the subject of the seventh and final installment in this series of blogs.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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