Assessment, EdCan Network, Opinion

The Assessment Barrier

How much do tests really tell us about a student’s ability to apply real world knowledge?



My 12-year-old son built a computer this summer. Not any computer, but an Intel core i5 4570K with 8 gigabytes of ram, 2 Terabytes HDD, an MSI GeForce GTX 770 graphic card and using pc part picker, he independently put together each component of the system. He created an inventory sheet with costs and ordering information, and even created a budget and timeline on how/when he could order his parts. He communicated by phone, Skype, email and used online forums to troubleshoot – sometimes taking apart and putting back the same pieces several times. Admittedly, I was overwhelmed and vulnerable throughout this process since my understanding and knowledge didn’t match the skills needed for the project (plus, there was lots of money involved). I had to trust him. What I saw was a self-directed learner that when engaged, worked through a project to the end. A learner that could read and fully comprehend complicated instructions through text, use math in a real world context and a variety of ways; use visual, text, and audio skills to seek information from a assortment of sources. He asked for help when needed and used a variety of sources (telephone call, IT support, online forums, blogs and Skype).  

When this same 12-year-old showed me his “average to low” report card, I struggled with this question: Do our assessments and evaluation truly reflect knowledge, thinking, and communication? Does Ontario’s assessment practices reflect 21st Century Learners? Is our evaluation/assessment too narrow? How much do tests really tell us about a student’s ability to apply real world knowledge? Do grades reflect understanding? Does school evaluation put a barrier on one’s commitment and demonstration of authentic and meaningful tasks?

As a teacher of gifted students, I ask these same questions. Especially for students that, on one hand, score in the 99th percentile in overall IQ and General Index ability, and on the other are underachieving academically. How do I really understand and then evaluate what they know? Like my son, what their experience tells them is that grades and learning are not synonymous. As one of my students recently put it before writing a standardized test (Education Quality and Accountability Office), “It is time to play the game”. But what if they’re not good at the game? As an educator, I struggle with the authenticity of assessment. In fact, assessment and evaluation have been a huge barrier in my own experience as a learner.

I was never great at test taking, especially those tests that required memorization or specific answers. This made my experience in high school somewhat disastrous since most tests were (and still are) multiple choice/short answer. I had (and still have) struggles with both working memory and processing skills, which means that repetition, visuals and opportunity for open-ended questioning were/are essential for my success as school defines it. The first time I really found success in learning, in a formal academic situation, was during my courses in Grad school and in an informal online learning environment. In this environment, I wouldn’t be given a test or exam. Evaluation was based on projects, inquiry, critical thinking and research rather than reciting facts and knowledge that can be found in books (or on the Internet). Evaluation was based on the quality of discussion and collaboration with my colleagues. Use of specific criteria or rubrics was/are rarely used.

It was not luck that I made it through high school, College and two University degrees, and now working through a Graduate program. However, my academic success happened despite an education system that put barriers on my learning by creating standard assessments. Unlike many students (then and now), I had strong support from my immediate and extended family and I had (and still have) a strong desire for social justice and to overcome or knock down the barrier.

I am troubled that so many students will never have the opportunity to make it to a graduate program and experience how wonderfully engaging and powerful learning (and school) can and should be. Many of them will be evaluated right out of school, despite their ability and motivation, like my son and my students who seek out learning opportunities everyday. Even in a day when information, research and a variety of mediums are so widely available, students will be given multiple-choice or short answer tests, specific criteria based assignments, and will be evaluated based on their ability to memorize, recite and demonstrate skills in written form. These students are sorted into age-based groups, where teaching and learning are based more on the order of curriculum expectations then on the readiness and ability of each individual. If the standards are changed in some way (Individual Education Plans), this is an exception to the rule and not the norm. 

There is no reason that students today need to feel isolated or trapped by assessment. Learners can access facts and information in a variety of ways – if we let them. Teachers can provide assessment and feedback in multiple of ways. Students can apply their learning to creative and real world situations – if we trust them. They can show their learning in audio and visual formats – if we show them. They can use online tools to review and master new skills and can collaborate or discuss ideas anytime and from anywhere – if we encourage them. Educators today, can access professional development, current information, networks of learners and online tools in ways that didn’t exist even a decade ago. The assessment barrier is only a reality – if we let it be.

This blog post is part of a series of thoughtful responses to the question: What’s standing in the way of change in education? to help inform CEA’s Calgary Conference on Oct 21-22, (#CEACalgary2013) where education leaders from across Canada will be answering the same question. If you would like to answer this question, please tweet us at: @cea_ace

Meet the Expert(s)

Zoe Branigan-Pipe

Zoe Branigan-Pipe

Teacher, Hamilton-Wentworth District

Zoe Branigan-Pipe is an educator, blogger, speaker and edtech leader. She is currently an itinerant teacher for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) Gifted Program, where she co-facilitates the Innovation and Enrichment Centre, and a part-time instructor for Brock University, Continuing Education and Pre-Service Teacher Education Program. http://pipedreams-education.ca;  @zbpipe

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