Our Take on Assessment

Assessment is often where the rubber meets the road in education. It’s relatively easy to envision more progressive forms of learning, like projects or seminars - but when push comes to shove, everyone wants to know exactly what will be measured, and how. 

I’ll start by sharing what doesn’t work. When I was a student teacher, I recall a student asking the famous question, “Will this be on the test?” That is perhaps the easiest way to know that assessment is working against you. In that situation, students are concluding that the assessment is a game, not related to their own curiosity or intrinsic drive to learn, and they simply want to know how best to win the game and move on. This is the kind of assessment which leads students to memorize information right before the test and then forget it soon after, while learning to ignore their own learning interests. Not good.

This is also the kind of assessment that typically leads to a letter grade, one of the least accurate forms of assessment out there. Grades are highly effectively at removing a student’s own drive to learn, while creating needless anxiety by constant comparison. Indeed, grades are increasingly not used by progressive middle schools and not required by many high schools. (For a great read on why grades and similar measurements can be so problematic, see Alfie Kohn’s wonderful book "Punished by Rewards.") For now, we’ll present what we think is a more effective method of assessment. We have three principles:

  1. Assessment should help a student in the future (not only measure what has already happened and won’t be revisited).
  2. Assessment should contribute to a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn.
  3. Assessment should provide deep insight into a student - more than what a subjective “B+”, for example, can tell you.

We’ll go into each of these:

(1) Assessment should help a student in the future
This sounds obvious, but how often in school do students take tests which are graded only after they’ve moved on from a topic, leaving no time to improve and achieve mastery? Sal Khan eloquently outlines this problem in his book, The One World Schoolhouse, by describing the “swiss cheese” knowledge that comes from these after-the-fact assessments. For example, say a student gets an 80 on a math quiz; she knows some of the material but clearly does not know other parts. She took the test last week, gets it back this week, and the class has already moved onto the next topic, never to return again. She now has a big hole in her knowledge and skills, and no time to stop and achieve mastery - so it should not be a surprise that she accumulates problem areas, gaps of knowledge and skill that were never filled in, and then begins to struggle in math. This is what happens when assessment is rearward-looking. It’s used to compare students, not to help them learn.

Instead of this, it’s essential that students use assessment to support their learning going forward. For example, one assessment might be a peer or faculty member reviewing an in-progress draft of an essay, or scheduling a check-in to see how a monthlong project is going after the first week. Helping students appreciate the process of constantly iterating on and improving their work, without feeling that they’ve failed, is essential to progressive teaching (and to being an adult in today’s world - just look at the tech industry’s focus on constant iteration). 

(2) Assessment should contribute to a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn
Middle school is infamous as the time when student engagement plummets, as students increasingly check out of school or learn to play the game. This is due in no small part to assessment. With students developing their intellectual and emotional faculties rapidly, many can see through the assessment systems; in fact they begin to see them more as adults see their own assessment. How would you feel if your boss gave you a quiz, say without warning, then graded it and decided your salary for that month based on that assessment? What if you messed up on the quiz, but quickly recovered and mastered the material, and scored perfectly the second time - yet your boss said too late, your salary is already set, even though now you’ve mastered the skill? This is the kind of frustration that begins to drive middle schoolers crazy. 

Instead of this, assessment should always begin with student self-assessment, so that students are learning accurate self-reflection, comparing it to how others see them. Assessment should help students set SMART goals - Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Assessment should be formative, future-looking, so that students see it as an opportunity to check their progress and improve, not a one-time measure of whether they’ve failed or not. Whenever possible it should happen at a time of the student’s choice - like the student in a karate class who decides he's ready to begin preparing for the next belt level. Finally, it should build a portfolio (see more in the next point) that a student feels proud of, a collection of their very best work.

(3) Assessment should provide deep insight into a student
If you want to understand a human being who is growing and changing rapidly - whether you’re the student, their parent, or a high school admissions officer - you need more than a small set of subjective letter grades. We plan to use at least three types of “deep assessment.” The first are online portfolios of student work, like a much richer version of LinkedIn - imagine a webpage with a student’s essay on her family’s immigration to the US, a video of her dance performance, the mathematical calculations she used to design a building for an architecture project, and a blog she wrote on learning French - now you really begin to get a flavor for that student and her unique interests and talents. Second is narrative assessment - written descriptions of a student’s progress from the student him/herself, faculty, and experts in the field. For example, that mathematical calculation in the portfolio might be accompanied by a note from the architect who mentored the student, describing how impressed she was with this professional-quality work. Finally, we’ll use developmental assessments - measurements of growth in areas like habits of mind, for example a student’s ability to manage their time, again based first on self-assessment and always forward-looking. 

These methods draws on a long tradition of practice within progressive schools, and the resulting transcripts are accepted by high schools  - in fact they often help students stand out in their future application process. Most importantly, this approach builds a culture where students feel seen for their unique talents and interests - a culture which preserves students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

Christopher Balme1 Comment