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The Damage We Do (Part 4) Six Short Blogs on the Fundamental Flaw of Student Assessment

Part 4: More Problems With Oranges

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In Part 3 of The Damage We Do, I proposed that our obsessive focus in schools on measuring “achievement” by way marks and final grades actually threatens the quality and integrity of K-12 education. I pointed out that assessment systems designed to yield comparative rankings tend, necessarily, to narrow, fragment and trivialize the studies under investigation.

Here is a second problem: it is frequently the case that assessment systems aimed at generating a rank-ordered description of student achievement will invariably leave out certain elements -- sometimes even the most important elements -- of a field of study. This has been a long-standing issue in education. For example, in one study, researchers found that science teachers faced with the imperative to conduct large-scale tests, “now teach fewer labs and lecture more” and “now must concentrate on objectives and reduce the number of side issues students are able to explore”.  This problem happens across the board. Teachers compelled to “cover the curriculum” -- to eventually generate marks -- don’t have the luxury of pursuing a subject in any depth. As any teacher knows, however, it is sometimes the “side issues” that are the most important ones to explore.  

A third, and related, feature of an assessment system designed to yield comparative measures of student achievement has to do with the problem of what is called construct validity -- the extent to which a particular assessment result accurately represents a student’s true understanding or ability in a particular area. Even though some students might present well on a report card, this does not necessarily mean they are, in fact, capable or conversant in a subject area. It is one thing to become successful at writing school science tests; it is quite another to think like a scientist. The same is true for almost any subject studied at school, e.g. French, mathematics, history. The level of student knowledge and ability purportedly identified in report cards represents, at best, a strange approximation of the real thing.

As troublesome as these problems are, they pale in comparison to another set of issues and consequences that strike right to the heart of what’s wrong with our current approach to student assessment. These will be addressed in the next instalment of The Damage We Do.

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.