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What keeps me up at night.

March 22nd, 2009
This misses the point entirely.

This misses the point entirely.

Assessment is the part of my job that I enjoy the least.

By a wide margin.

I’ve taught math in the past. Presently, I teach I.T. and History. All three are completely different animals when it comes to assessment, and each poses a unique set of problems that manages to keep me awake at night.

You can be ruthlessly objective when grading a math test or homework assignment: the requirements are clear, and there is (generally) only one right answer. Your numeric grade in math represents the extent to which you measure up to perfection. Plain and simple. Cold and calculating. Not particularly friendly. 1

Try throwing around a word like ‘perfection’ in a history class and you lose your credibility in an instant. In a course designed to teach students that there ultimately IS no ‘right answer’, you can’t take the mathematical approach. So how do you assess? What does that magic number represent? The extent to which you demonstrate reasoning and critical thinking skills? Well, yes. But good luck determining that objectively.

Take a moment and give your own reasoning skills a grade from 0 to 100.

… See what I mean?

What does assessment mean when it comes to  I.T.? The canned answer is “problem solving skills, naturally.” But are problem solving skills any easier to assess than reasoning skills, or critical thinking skills?

Skills are at the heart of assessment, but most assessment instruments do a poor job assessing skills. Unless you intend to measure content retention as a ’skill’, there’s really no point in giving closed-book, timed history tests. The same goes for math tests that don’t ask you to show your work. And the idea of a written I.T. exam is just laughable.

If you want to measure reasoning skills, assess the questions your students ask. If you want to measure critical thinking skills, give your students the tools and watch what they do with them. If you want to measure problem solving skills, pose a real problem, step back and watch. It’s fun.

Now, give your problem solving skills a mark out of 100.

Annoyed yet?

  1. I’m aware this is a contentious statement. In reality things are much more complicated, and good math teachers do what they can to employ alternative assessments. Collaborative work, portfolios, and independent study projects are great tools to this end. But how often do you see them stand in place of quizzes and tests?

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4 Responses to “What keeps me up at night.”

  1. John says:

    Ever read “That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession”? It reminded me of what you were talking about.

  2. Ari says:

    Just added it to my list of things to read someday.

    I really do think you can assess reasoning skills. They’re certainly observable – some students reason better than others. They ask the right questions, and make statements they can defend based on evidence. Others don’t.

    Curiously enough (not really), the former students are also articulate, rational, and critical of the world around them. The latter tend to live in (meander aimlessly through) the present…

  3. Krystn says:

    There was an article posted on msn recently about high schools that no longer use grades. Instead, the teachers write up formal assessments for each student. Their transcripts end up being about a foot thick, but it’s something their attempting to do to get rid of the old grading system.

    Have you heard of this?

  4. Ari says:

    I have indeed, though probably something similar to what you’re describing.

    The schools I’ve heard about are part of an organization called ‘High Tech High’. Rather than assessing with numbers, the idea at these schools is to have students create portfolios, and learn through projects. Assessment is ongoing, and takes the form of progress reports and constant feedback. It’s also authentic, because all the projects try to involve the community, by bringing in government officials, business owners, etc.

    Check them out: http://www.edutopia.org/collaboration-age-technology-high-tech

    I want to work there.

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