Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I have been thinking about assessment recently due to discussions in my classes and my field experience at a middle school.  Educators split assessment into two general categories: formative and summative.  Formative are quick, informal checks of understanding, i.e. "can you evaluate this derivative?"  Summative are the more traditional quizzes and tests that occur after a unit of learning and result in something to be turned in and graded.  Most overall grades are decided by these summative assessments, but I have a problem with them.

Any assessment is really a snapshot of what people know at a specific time and place.  Students may know how to translate graphs for the test, but forget by the time Labor Day rolls around.  So can we truly say they know what they were tested on?  Assessments for nonacademic pursuits are the same way.  Sports stars are judged based on game-time performance, runners on race times, and artists on the critical reception of their work.  The issue is that these specific times don't show the full picture.  They don't include the hours of sweat, tears, and sometimes blood poured into an endeavor, just an end result.

I don't think anything can be put in a neat box like that.  As a runner, I compare myself to other runners via race times, but just because I am faster than a runner doesn't make me a better runner.  You can't see the failed runs, the physical pain, the rearranging of my schedule to accomodate a run in my race times. I can't see the years of consistent running, joy in finding a new place, or interest in running pushing a personal boundary in another runner's race.  As humans, we like quick and easy comparisons, for decisions to be a binary yes or no, black or white, good or evil.  But real life is never like that.

As a student, I have never seen what goes into a single lesson that I attend.  I don't see the written plan, the caffeine consumed, and the snap decisions made to break away from the plan.  I have a new appreciation for it as an almost student teacher.  As a teacher, I don't know if my student is focused on what I want them to learn.  I can't even be sure that they're starting with the knowledge base they're supposed to have.  So we both have to go under the assumption that the other has some idea of what's happening.

Real life is messy.  Maybe a student's personal life is going through some upheaval, or they couldn't get breakfast that morning, or they were ill and missed school for three days.  I guarantee they'll do better on an assessment if all those things went away.  Maybe the athlete just lost someone close to them, and they drop the game-winning run/TD/goal.  Maybe the runner next to me has been fighting an Achilles injury, and isn't running at 100%.

So why do we put so much weight on these snapshots of ability?  There is so much that happens underneath the surface of a single performance, from time spent to other responsibilities ignored to obstacles overcome.  Perhaps that's just the way we're wired.  Regardless, we need to appreciate that we can't fully see anyone else's perspective, and accept that for the most part, we're all just trying to do our best with the hand we were dealt.  Let's try to get the full picture before we make any assessments.