Monday, October 10, 2011

Standards based assessments not a panacea

A Tacoma School Board candidate that I know asked me what I thought of standards-based assessment.

Well, I told him, I have a lot of thoughts...depending on the more specific framing of the question.

First, I think everybody just imagines the 4-3-2-1 as grades anyway--A-B-C-D.  So there will need to be some relearning of what the scores mean.  Unless that IS what they mean?

More importantly, the human element still exists in the determining of how well the student met the standard.  Last year we had some oddly written standards rubrics (from OSPI, for the social studies CBA), so we had quite lengthy discussions about how to evaluate whether the student met the standard.  (The question of what the standards are and how they're created is another matter.)

Further, I think teachers are subtly encouraged to read the standard then simply look for the presence of material that matches that standard.  And it doesn't matter whether that material is any good or not.  This is particularly problematic in social studies/humanities kinds of subjects.

Ultimately, I think the impulse toward standards based assessment is driven by the (mindless) desire to numerate and technologize things.  If we can put seemingly replicable numeration to something we can believe that we're standardizing the measurement and production of what in this case is hard to measure in that way.  We've thus technologized it in a way that makes us think we can routinize the production of that thing.

Neil Postman writes extensively of this in his book Technopoly.

In the end, I don't think we're any clearer that a student is actually learning something or learning as much as they should/need to.  I think the standards movement thinks that standards based assessment does give us a better sense, but I don't know that it does.

Take 'inference making,' for instance.  I can teach about that.  Talk about what goes into it, etc., but some kids will always be better than others.  Or writing.  We are going to work on a 'standard' that involves teaching the writing process.  We'll measure their facility with naming and knowing the process, but not worry so much about whether they actually write anything worth reading.  Seems strange to me, but the logic goes, 'well, at least they know the process.'

As I've said before, education is an endeavor that entails a certain degree of sloppiness.  Thinking that we can clean up that sloppiness with a new evaluation system may be too hopeful.  I'd much rather prepare teachers and administrators to identify the ways that teachers and students accomplish good things in looser ways, and encourage a general alertness to shifting and stretching what works to cover more students in more skills and content areas.

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