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The Damage We Do (Part 6) Six Short Blogs on the Fundamental Flaw of Student Assessment

Part 6: The Biggest Problem With Oranges

Completely Mouldy Orange.jpg

In the preceding blogs I have tried to show how an assessment system that is explicitly designed to produce comparative measures of student achievement -- the assessment system we use on our kids in schools -- actually threatens the quality and integrity of the educational process. I made a distinction between “apples” (formative assessment) and “oranges” (summative assessment), and described how a system that is dominated by “oranges” will almost necessarily:

  • narrow, fragment and trivialize the curriculum

  • omit important elements of studies undertaken

  • offer a pale approximation of the knowledge and abilities they purport to describe

  • compromise the educative relationship between students and teachers

  • make cheating a viable behavioural alternative

  • invite a cynical and utilitarian approach to school learning

The biggest problem of all with oranges, however, is that their continued use systematically robs our children -- and indeed our society as a whole -- of the deepest purposes and potential of schooling. By having students participate in a make-believe world that uses grades to artificially identify some as winners and others as losers, we divert our children away from the far more valuable prize -- the gaining of a genuine education.

So what are these “deepest purposes and potential of schooling”, and what is this “genuine education” that our children are missing out on? Simply put, it is the opportunity to use a strong learning foundation to discover and develop their unique interests and abilities, so they might each make their own distinctive contribution to the living and working communities, however large or small, they choose to inhabit.

We do not need an assessment regime dominated by marks and grades to make that happen; we just teachers working with kids to provide them with that strong learning foundation, and to encourage and support them as they discover and develop those unique interests and abilities. And, importantly, we need the infrastructure and authority that will allow teachers to do this for each and every student.

While there are, admittedly, miles to go to meaningfully transform schools with these deeper purposes firmly in mind, the stakes could not be higher. If we do education well, we will move beyond the superficial identification of winners and losers and concentrate instead on developing and celebrating the distinctive accomplishments and contributions of all of our students. By helping all of them to discover and develop their particular interests and abilities, we gain their engagement in the betterment of our world. If we do education poorly by continuing as we have, we lose this opportunity and we participate, once again, in a colossal waste of the human spirit. It is time, in other words, to dump the oranges.

In the next blog, entitled A Better Way to Go, I will 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.

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.