Friday, March 1, 2013

6 Common Misunderstandings About Assessment and Evaluation

Over the past two decades there has been a lot written, and much discussion, around the use effective use of assessment in the classroom.  Unfortunately many educators, particularly at the secondary school level, continue to cling tenaciously to “traditional” practices which are, at best ineffective and at worst, counterproductive to the goals of modern education.  Here are six common misconceptions about assessment and evaluation that we need to abolish.
1.    “Assessment and evaluation are the same.”  No they’re not! Too many people, particularly those not employed in the field of education, conflate these two and too often within the field we evaluate student work and tell ourselves that what we’ve done is assessment.  Assessment involves timely, detailed  feedback based around clearly defined learning outcomes.  Evaluation is “giving a grade” to a piece of work, usually based on normative criteria, but too often in comparison to the work of other students.
2.    “Most assessment is summative.”  Well, unfortunately that may still be true in many quarters, but it should not be.  As we’ve learned over the past two decades or so assessment can be a very powerful learning tool in and of itself.  As Dylan Wiliam has been saying for years, we need to constantly assess both student work and our own teaching, adjusting as we go, such that by the time we get to the end of a unit of study students have already had an opportunity to rethink and revise their work.  There are still far too many teachers who rely too heavily on one single summative assessment at the end of each unit and then move onto another topic no matter the outcomes.
3.    “Assessment is one way communication, the teacher gives feedback on student work”.  Well, yes that’s true, but the most productive assessment should be a dialogue.  In traditional assessment and evaluation models students complete a task, the teacher assesses the work and tells the student how they’ve done and, in formative cases, how to improve the work.  But when students engage with the teacher to discuss work, talk about what they’ve done and why, both student and teacher stand to gain far more from the experience.  Modern technology makes two way communication between teacher and student much easier and far more ubiquitous, let’s start using it more effectively.
4.    “Assessment is for grading purposes.”  This is one of the most pervasive and potentially damaging holdovers from bygone eras in education.  Yes, final grades should reflect some of what has gone on between student and teacher regarding assessment.  But the “collecting of marks” to arrive at the final grade is counterproductive in many ways, here are just two.  First, the collation marks too often includes work which was done before students had mastered the material.  As has been said by others, when we redo things like driving tests we don’t “average” the results, why do we do this with school work.  Secondly, every teacher, especially in secondary schools, is aware of how the pursuit of ‘marks’ often distracts students’ focus from the work at hand.  This is doubly damaging because neuroscience is telling us that brains under stress from external stimuli can have significantly diminished learning capacity.
5.    “Student work should be given a mark”.  In summative situations, or where marks are necessary, this assertion is true.  But too often we put a mark on student work when we’re hoping to use the work formatively, which is a mistake.  As soon as students see a grade on a piece of work, be it a letter or number grade, the focus is immediately taken off of any meaningful feedback and, in the student’s mind, that piece of work is complete.  It’s time to move on.  No matter what the teacher intends grades imply a finality that’s hard to overcome in students’ minds.
6.    “If assignments are late I deduct marks.  There is no pedagogically defensible reason for doing this.  This is simply trying to modify behaviour using coercion through grades.  There is nothing wrong with having some consequence for late work, but the assignment of grades (when necessary) should reflect student learning, nothing more.  Put another way, if a student hands in work worthy of an A today, is that work somehow different if it were handed in tomorrow?

My experience has been that when teachers rethink and reform their views about what assessment is about, and what its primary purposes are, their feedback is invariably positive.  When we pry the “mark book” out of the collective hand of those in the teaching profession, and allow individual teachers the freedom to use assessment in more productive ways, we find that assessment becomes far more authentic and fruitful and far less about the drudgery (and judgment) of marking.