In a series of six short blogs entitled The Damage We Do, I described the fundamental flaw of our current student assessment system: because it is engineered to produce comparative measures of student achievement which effectively identifies winners and losers, it distorts and corrupts the true potential of K-12 education. In this instalment, I want to offer a preview of a completely different way to think about “student assessment” as undertaken in the service of a deeper and richer view of education.
To cut right to the chase, the problem is not our use of formative assessment (i.e. apples). Insofar as teachers are committed to enhancing student learning, it is completely appropriate for them to use all kinds of measures to figure out what kids apparently know or can do. The real challenge is to come up with a different approach to “oranges” -- i.e. those summative assessments that offer endpoint descriptions of what students have accomplished -- and what they have become interested in -- over the course of their grade school education. If we can create endpoint descriptions that are more nuanced and ambitious, we can create an assessment environment that supports, rather than sabotages, our deeper purposes.
The short story answer here is that we need to shift away from traditional report cards that offer rank-order descriptions of student achievement within different subject areas and move toward a more sophisticated use of something like portfolios and individual learner profiles. We need, that is, to create a more multilayered and fine-grained record of what students have actually done, what they are interested in, and what attributes they demonstrably possess. And we need to do this in a way that captures and reveals a broader range of understanding and ability than is typically embedded within a standard report card.
Such a profile might include the following components:
Single-focus Workshops Completed (e.g. Time Management & Executive Functioning; Design Thinking; Working in Collaborative Groups; Proper Reference Citations; Introduction to Practical Reasoning, etc.)
Baseline Literacy Elements Acquired to a Masterly Level (e.g. Basic Sentence Structure; Reading Comprehension Level 4; Mathematical Operations Level 6; Distinguishing Types of Claims in Arguments; etc.)
Interdisciplinary “Big Picture” Foundations Courses Completed (e.g. A Brief History of Civilization; On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of Science; The Beauty Within Music, Art, and Literature)
Instructor-Certified Independent Courses Completed (e.g. Investigations in Biological Systems; How to Make an App; Watercolour Painting; etc.)
Teacher-Assigned Projects (e.g. Mystery of the Great Pyramid; Scientific Profile: Madame Currie; Thinker Profile: Hildegaard of Bingen; Math Profile: The Fibonnaci Sequence; Creative Arts Profile: Jackson Pollack; etc.)
Self-Designed Projects (e.g. Exploration of a Single Cell; Contemporary Fashion Design; Building Boat From Scratch; etc.)
External Credentials (e.g. St. John’s Ambulance First Aid; Duke of Edinburgh Silver; Computer Graphics for Gaming Level 1; Carpentry Apprentice Level 1)
Personal Interests and Engagement (e.g. Biological Sciences; Graphic Design; Film Directing; Extreme Sports; etc.)
Demonstrable Personal Attributes (e.g. Persistence & Tenacity; Attention to Detail; Leadership in Collaborative Groups; etc.)
The first three elements are items that might be required of all students -- i.e. learning skills workshops, mastery of certain baseline literacy requirements, and exposure to a few foundational survey courses (however configured) that attempt to help students connect the dots between the multitudinous stories of human achievement and folly. These represent, perhaps, the minimal requirements of engaged citizenship.
The remaining six sections provide a more direct and substantive account of the differentiated strengths, interests and attributes of individual learners. The self-designed projects, in particular, will offer the best indicators of a student’s individual strengths and interests.
Parts of this profile feature mastery-level accomplishment and pass\fail assessments over rank-order descriptions of student achievement. There is an explicit intention, as well, to reveal a student’s unique strengths, interests and abilities by way of what they actually do -- the kinds of independent courses they complete, the external credentials they earn, the projects they take on, and the way they conduct themselves throughout the years.
There are, to be sure, important problems to work out in attempting a more sophisticated “learning profile” approach to student assessment. How will colleges, universities and potential employers make sense of these profiles? What privacy issues need to be addressed? How do we ensure the credibility of these profiles? The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is whether or not it would be worth it to find ways to overcome these challenges -- many of which are currently being addressed -- in the service of a new approach to assessment that would offer a reliable account of what an individual has actually done and where their interests, abilities and aspirations actually lay.
I know which way I would want to go.
Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he recently completed his new book, Education Reimagined: The Schools Our Children Need, which will be available on Amazon in late July.