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The Damage We Do (Part 2) Six Short Blogs on the Fundamental Flaw of Student Assessment

Part 2: Distinguishing Apples and Oranges

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Imagine that you are downhill skiing with a couple of friends who are beginners and ask you for advice about how to improve their technique. Let’s say that at the bottom of a completed run, you offer different sets of advice to each of your friends depending on their particular situation. “Fred, you might try bending your knees more and putting more pressure on your downhill ski”. “Maya, you might try to plant your pole on each turn, rather than have it flailing in the air.” So far, so good. Now imagine that right after giving this advice you then say, “Oh by the way, Fred you get a 7.5 out of 10 on your run and Maya, I will give you a 6.0.”

Notice how strange and inappropriate the latter comments are in this context of helping your friends learn to ski. I think this distinction between giving individuals advice and support to help them better understand or do something versus giving them a “measure” of their apparent understanding or ability strikes to the very heart of where our school system has gone wrong.

It is one thing to give someone substantive feedback on particular things they might do to improve their skiing. It is quite another thing to translate their performance into a rank-order “measure” of achievement. The first set of comments offers feedback that is directly relevant to the practice undertaken -- in this case, skiing. The second set of comments point to and presuppose a different purpose -- that of offering a rank-order comparison of apparent skiing ability. The first of these things is “apples”; the second is “oranges”.

In the context of contemporary schooling this is the distinction between formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment is an attempt by teachers to find out what students know and what they can do in order to give them substantive feedback so they might extend their learning. This is meant to happen “along the way” and can take many forms: diagnostic assessments, quizzes, probing questions, or performative demonstrations (e.g. like gliding down a ski hill). The sole motive and use of formative assessment, in and of itself, is to serve as an aid to teachers and students alike in the pursuit of enhanced understanding or ability. Formative assessments are apples.

The function of summative assessment, on the other hand, is precisely to provide a comparative measure of student achievement -- whether this be expressed in words (excellent, very good, good, satisfactory, poor, etc.) or as a percentage (90%, 76%, 58%, 40%, etc.), or as an attainment level on a rubric (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8), or as final designation on the International Baccalaureate 1-7 scale. The use and purpose of these kinds of assessments, in other words, is precisely to generate a public record -- a public certification -- of apparent understanding or ability rendered in a way that invites rank-order comparisons. Summative assessments are oranges.

So what is the problem here? What is wrong with using both apples and oranges in our assessment of students at school? I am hoping that the next four blogs within this series will make this clear, and at the same time change the way you think about grades, report cards and indeed the very purpose of schools.  

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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