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The Damage We Do (Part 5) Six Short Blogs on the Fundamental Flaw of Student Assessment

Part 5: Another Problem With Oranges

Over several blogs I have offered three reasons why assessment systems designed to provide comparative measures of student achievement threaten the quality and integrity of grade schools education:

  • They tend to narrow, fragment and trivialize the curriculum

  • They inevitably leave out the most important elements of a field of study

  • The knowledge and abilities they report on represent, at best, a pale approximation of the subject matter under investigation

Here is a fourth problem with our obsessive focus in schools on measuring “achievement” by way marks and final grades: this arrangement necessarily compromises the learning relationship between a student and a teacher (and the schools they represent).

Consider the different ways you might interact with a driving instructor and a driver-testing examiner. In the first case, you might be inclined to ask lots of questions and would be open and receptive to receiving feedback and advice. In the second case, you would likely be fairly tight-lipped and would probably do everything you can to conceal from that person anything you did not understand. Your interactions would be strategic, not educative.

This is precisely what happens when teachers (and schools) are expected to be the gatekeepers that publicly certify student understanding and ability. When teachers are in the business of giving “apples” to students -- i.e. when they engage in formative assessments to enhance student understanding and ability -- everything is fine. When they shift over and start giving students “oranges”, on the other hand, then the relationship starts to get weird. Students learn to play strange games with teachers  -- by refraining from asking a question for fear of revealing their ignorance and by pretending to know more than they actually do.

Half Mouldy Orange.jpg

They also adopt a very cynical and utilitarian view of the value of what they are learning in school. I have a good friend who tells the story of a student in his grade 11 philosophy class who enjoyed the provocative questions that were raised but nonetheless identified the reality of the situation by saying, “Mr. X, we just need you to give us the correct answer, so we can get the grade we need to get into the university that our parents want us to get into.” In another instance my friend had counselled his students that it was likely counter-productive for them to cram for their final exams. Despite his advice, many of his students showed up early on the morning of their exam day to participate in a frenzied last-minute review. When he asked them why they were doing this, they replied that it would be worth it, if they could score just one more point on their test. When he pointed out that they would probably quickly forget whatever it was that they crammed into their heads, they immediately replied, “We don’t care”.  

When learning is reduced to a strategic interaction aimed at securing “good grades”, then all bets are off when it comes to genuine educative exchanges. The most obvious confirmation of this can be seen in the multitude of instances in which students are willing to “cheat” to get the grades they want. We should not be surprised by this -- indeed we should see that it is the logical consequence of the system we have created. When students burn their class notes and vow never to read another book again upon graduation, we know that something has gone fundamentally wrong with our twelve year investment in the education of our young.

In the last instalment of this series, I will identify the biggest liability of all in a system that would allow comparative measures of student achievement to supersede our more fundamental educative purposes. Stay tuned.

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.