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The Damage We Do (Part 1) Six Short Blogs on the Fundamental Flaw of Student Assessment

Part 1: Fish Discover Water Last

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It is right in front of us, but we can’t actually see it.   

People who have spent a lot of time in education know that there is something not quite right about what we are doing in schools, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. Parents on the outside know that there can be unpleasant chapters in their children’s school experience, but they acquiesce in this because they cannot imagine how things could be different.

There are a lot of good things and not so good things that happen in education, but one of the most debilitating, corrosive, and ultimately counterproductive things we do in schools is something we all automatically take for granted -- the apparent “necessity” of constantly measuring purported levels of “student achievement”.

I am not introducing here a critique of the way we carry out student assessments. This is not a debate about the efficacy of certain kinds of tests, or the relative merits of rubrics over letter grades or percentage scores. I am challenging instead the very rationale for these assessments -- what they presuppose about the essential value or contribution of grade school education.

The long and short of it is this: our obsession in schools with generating comparative measures of student achievement has fundamentally distorted the very purpose and potential of public education. Where the twelve years spent in school could and should be a time where students gain a strong foundation to then discover and develop their unique interests and abilities, they are instead filled with an unending parade of requirements that, once completed, have little purchase on their lives.

Why this obsession with measuring and reporting on student achievement? Because, at the end of the day, our schools are a giant accreditation mechanism that determines who goes to university and who does not. Perhaps unwittingly, they have accepted the role of certifying the apparent knowledge and ability of students, and in so doing, have diverged away from their more essential task -- i.e. of allowing their students to acquire an education that is worthy of the name.

In the next five blogs, I will show how our obsession with comparative and rank-order assessments systematically undermines our ability to offer students a genuine education. After that, I will offer a preview of a completely different way to understand student assessment as undertaken in the service of a deeper and richer view of education. In the meantime I will leave parents and educators with this question:

What exactly do the repeated acts of certifying the apparent knowledge and ability of students -- i.e. by giving them a grades, percentages or rubric scores -- necessarily have to do with the larger educative project of allowing individuals to discover and develop their unique interests and abilities?

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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 is available now on Amazon.