Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Assessment Obsession

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for a couple of weeks now, due to the inevitable, inexorable periodic pressure of grading inflicted upon those who practice my profession. Few teachers manage to avoid the necessity of testing and assessing their students’ work—and none of us enjoys the task.
Education has preoccupied utopian thinking at least since the time of Plato, and it figures prominently in his design of the Republic. William Morris’s response (in part stemming from his experience in the boarding school “boy farm” at Marlborough) to the question of how we should educate our young was—as he described it in News From Nowhere—to let it happen naturally. All children are hungry to learn, and adults need only supply them with the means to do so, by example primarily, and by allowing them to pursue what interests them while learning alongside adults about how to farm, how to develop a craft, how to build a boat, and how to live. Although he didn’t rule out “book learning,” Morris recognized that children require instruction and learn best through the example of adults. He completely rejected, however, Edward Bellamy's concept of compulsory education (through the age of 21) and preparation for the Industrial Army—centerpieces of Bellamy's utopian vision in Looking Backward.
When I look back on the significant moments of my own rather eclectic education, it’s clear that the memorable experiences are not those that took place in a classroom, but rather the explorations of my environments and encounters I had with the adults who helped shape my world view. Books were another major component, especially in a childhood that afforded little opportunity to watch television.
Now, as an educator of young adults, I’m faced with trying to combine a broadly-conceived philosophy of education (one that focuses on doing rather than rote learning) with a badly thought-out outcomes-based educational system. According to this regime, all courses need to show immediate results, and those results have to be quantified. I have to design course objectives that use “action verbs” to describe outcomes that can be achieved, demonstrated, and measured by the end of the course.
But what if what I’m trying to build is an intellectual toolkit that will allow students to learn how to determine what they need to learn in the future? How do I measure the ability to absorb information over time, make interesting connections, draw on experience, and combine new understanding with an existing knowledge base? What if my goal is to offer ways of seeing the world that can’t be measured in any meaningful way? What if I’m just trying to teach my students how to consider new ideas before jerking their knees in response to some pre-digested pabulum set forth in a textbook?
So I agonize over how to determine whether or not my students have learned anything during the quarter, and how I can measure that learning at the end of eleven weeks. I then must assign grades, for which I have drawn up rubrics to describe what they mean, in an effort to provide an assessment that actually says something about what students are actually accomplishing.
Ideally, my students would produce a portfolio of design work and essays that indicate what they’ve learned about the history of art and design. But I have upward of 150 students every quarter (that’s 600 students per year), and reading and responding to essays is enormously time-consuming. I’d never sleep if I were to assign a meaningful number of essays (say four per course per quarter) and a couple of design problems that would help me determine what students were learning about the principles and ideas being discussed in the class. So I end up giving exams that ask them to identify images, recognize terminology, and remember the characteristics of particular movements. I assign only one design problem (illuminate a literary text, for example, or produce a poster in the style of a particular design movement) that asks them to engage in the process of design and to describe that process in a concept essay. I ask them to conduct research—but not to write research papers, because I want their research to inform their design solutions. They produce annotated bibliographies of their sources to show me how they used their research, in an effort to make them aware that using others’ materials must be acknowledged. I’m generally quite pleased with the results of these “hands-on” projects (although the bibliographies generally leave much to be desired), and they usually tell me much more about what a student has learned than the exams do.
In other words, I do what I can to accommodate the “system,” but probably engage my students less and allow them to learn in a less meaningful way than I could if I didn’t constantly have to figure out how to “grade” them on what they learn.
Mind you, I have it fairly easy. Providing art students with even one creative assignment makes my job somewhat easier than my husband’s. He teaches philosophy courses (intro, ethics, social/political) in which he requires his students to think on paper. But his students (in a local community college) are not any more prepared to write coherently than mine are, and many of his students are on their way to four-year universities where they will major in business and politics and other professions that will determine the shape of our future economy.
The problem is that these kids have been taught to take multiple-choice, true/false exams that require only their ability to retain information long enough to pass a test. They have not been taught to think. They have not even been taught to write, except for the standard five-paragraph, “tell me what you’re going to tell me; tell me; then tell me what you told me” essay—which is hardly an essay at all because it explores nothing. It simply weaves a few facts together, artificially, mechanically, and inelegantly. And the only reason they’ve been taught this is so that they can pass the essay component of a standardized test, which will then be read by someone who’s reading for mechanics, not real analysis or synthesis.
What my husband’s dean calls “the assessment regime” has infected education in this country at all levels. In order for my college to be regionally accredited, for example, we periodically have to jump through a series of hoops governed by the latest fad(s) in higher education. I’m not knocking the necessity for improvement and internal accountability, but the accreditation process requires major input of statistics, and immediate results—an inappropriate goal in many fields that require long study in order for “results” to emerge. So the statistics give us a snapshot of the moment, but they tell us nothing about what’s really going on over the long term. I’m sure that ten years ago people were noticing that writing and math skills were both on the skids in this country. If anything, after all this assessment, and despite programs like “No Child Left Behind,” nothing has improved, and our students are falling further and further behind the rest of the world. In fact, one report (Math and Science in a Global Age: What the U. S. Can Learn from China) suggests that even though we know about practices that will produce significantly better results in math and science education, they are seldom employed in U. S. classrooms. The report cites several reasons for this, including badly-designed textbooks, but I would imagine that the pressure of immediate assessment “results” has at least something to do with it.
If anything is to change, the system has to be shaken up radically. I don’t have the energy, at my age, but I’d urge people interested in teaching to read Morris and reimagine the possibilities. I’d also urge parents to yank their kids out of preschool and take them into the garden, to the zoo, to the natural history museum, the art museums. When they’re older and the state requires them to be in school, do it yourself, or enroll them in a program like Montessori, that promotes experiential learning. If you can’t afford that, volunteer in the schools, participate in their governance, and make time out of school to compensate for what’s lacking or what you can’t change. No double income is worth the sacrifice many parents make. The stuff you can buy, the big house you can live in, the SUV—none of this is worth what you lose by not being the principle educator in your child’s life. Work at home, or don’t “work” at all; spend your own time learning, and pass what you learn on to your children. By the time I get them, it’s almost too late.
Oh; and before you do anything, get rid of the television set. Doing so couldn’t hurt, and it might make all the difference.


GEM said...

Ah, yes, the obsession with quantitative assessment in education. This was something that I grappled with for 14 years as a high school teacher of art, before throwing in the towel and quitting teaching altogether.
The unfortunate part of teaching art in the public schools was the requirement to do all teaching "inside" the limited sphere of the school building and class room using "recieved" and allowed teaching aids. Taking a group of kids for a walk to look, examine, discuss the phenomena to be seen was heartily discouraged and was excruciating for me as a teacher.
I arranged, with jumping through many hoops, to take a number of senior ceramics students to visit a local potter's workshop. They were so energized in seeing a personal workspace,where this potter processed clay, mixed glazes, formed her objects and fired them, they were most reluctant to return to the school to run off to their next class in another subject. This proved to me that experiential learning is the most valuable aspect, mostly missing from the many educational experiences of our youngsters.
Even though I am not teaching, I am an observer of the many people I know who educate their own children in ways that a formal school system does not permit or cannot do. And, yes, most of these people do not have television in their home, and provide many enriching learning situations for their young.
Happy new year to you! I hope you have recuperated from your evaluation labours before Christmas.

Owlfarmer said...

Ah, Gem, you have reinforced my concerns once again. One reason I have come to be an advocate of home schooling is precisely because we need to 1) be able to trust parents and 2) find ways of understanding how well our students learn in ways other than testing.

My children turned out reasonably well, but perhaps only because their early years were less structured than most. Still, if I had it to do over again, they'd probably be schooled at home, using the local resources available (like a natural history museum/wildlife area where I used to teach home-schooled kids). We simply need to make more opportunities like that available to all children.

Happy new year to you as well. And as always, thanks for your input.