Monday, September 20, 2010

Assessment: Purposes and Purposeful?

Bonnie Kemble is currently teaching high school students in Qualicum Beach BC. Prior to this, she taught in middle school in a variety of student support positions. Her teaching career began in the north with adult learners preparing for entry into college, proving that variety is the spice of life!

Curious thing about assessments and the power they can have to alter life choices and courses... In education, as in life, there are bigger assessments and smaller assessments, ones that change life opportunities, and others which change the course of the day. I have come to know both as an educator in the classroom who makes daily decisions about learning opportunities, and as a specialist whose assessments may build a student's permanent learning file, which can in turn create places for students to be, on occasion, and how teachers may come to know them, for I regularly do what is referred to as Level B testing, normally a step beyond classroom assessment. I take this responsibility very seriously, for these higher stakes tests, done carefully, can take on a mystic of their own at times. "ah, this test will reveal that this student is ...(pick your pigeon hole)", yet the testing CAN be helpful even if it is at the same time, rather artificial information about a student's ability to learn. Assessments are limited in the ability to describe how a student learns, or how intelligent the student may be, by the questions that are asked, and so there are times when it is frustrating knowing that the assessment tools I am using, standardized and legitimized, show not the student who is before me, but how well the test is measuring up to a standard set by anonymous others. I participate in it because there are opportunities for supporting struggling learners who meet the criterion set, so on it goes.

Assessment for learning in the classroom seems friendlier somehow, because as an educator, you can change the flow according to what you see and hear from your students who are in the throes of learning. It is responsive, at its best, and useful. Assessment for learning is good teaching, because it relies on relationships and communication to resolve the edges of "I am learning and I am not there yet". It contributes to education as a transaction and transformation in contrast to assessment of learning, which is largely "I transfer to you and you and transfer back to me in as close to a accurate approximation to the original as possible". For me, assessment for learning is a way to figure out what we are doing in the classroom together, and how do we make it even richer? I get to guide the boat, for I am the teacher leader, but the journey is more rewarding when we are all part of the adventure. We will stop, and take photographs, and based on these snapshots, I may decide to speed up the boat, take side trips, continue on, back track, or make a speedier finish so that we can take another journey together sooner, but we will all have a part in the experience.

I was struck, this past year, by two classes in particular that I taught: one a grade 10 Social Studies classroom, the other a grade 12 Geography classroom. The grade 10 classroom, generally, was a livelier place. Students did not have a choice in their to take this course as it is a requirement for graduation, but at this age level, most were still willing to question the teacher, engage in conversation, offer differences of opinion out loud, challenge some ideas about the subject matter (and my teaching of it), and wrestle with if it had any meaning to them as people growing and developing. The life of the classroom was had assessment for learning elements, and lots of assessment of learning standardized practices too (professional development opportunities abound for me as a teacher to work with this mix more!) A departmental final and expectations for "what is usually done" and "what I was ready for" kept me in check, quite frankly. Students too were also quite surprised when practices beyond "read this section, do these questions, the unit test will be on Friday" were tried, and some were a little nervous that I was changing the rules to some degree. The grade 12 classroom was so "schooled" in older practices, it was really tough to break down barriers. "Is this going to be on the test?", "How did I do on the assignment?" were common questions. Breaking it open to ask them what they learned, what might be useful for them to know and how did our study of Geography relate to them were scary questions. I was saddened by how the students relied so much on the teacher to tell them, by way of marks, how much they had learned, and by how little they knew about their own work and how to evaluate it as having worth. I learned a great deal about the end of high school experiences by teaching this group. I can't say I felt overly optimistic about the experiences these students have had through out their formal education. We have a lot to learn as teachers about how to help students be learners: interested, curious, and eager to feed their hungry brains. For this group, they just wanted to get out of school. This was, I suspect, not the same group of youngsters who arrived at the school's doors a dozen or so years earlier. We have better work to do, more enriching work to do, than what we have, as a system, already done. September beckons...


  1. I think those those 12's are so different from the 10's because not only are they schooled in the old ways, they are also very driven to get to the end, the end that they can finally see. If they are on an academic track and going on to university they are aware of the competition - the marks in the world they are entering really do matter, financially as well as whether or not they are given opportunities. The 12's in my life really just want to know, "What is it they want so I can do what I have to?" The have to for them is often the highest mark possible, or the minimum to get by for some. An intersting dilemma we are faced with!!! Our system has really created this.

  2. The news from Ontario, that teachers have cheated to help students do well on provincial exams, makes you wonder about the effect of testing on teachers as well as students.