Subjective and Objective Student Assessment- A Thought Experiment on Student Learning

What assessment is fair to every student?

Imagine for a moment – you are a student, learning in a subject that you find to be difficult. Consider a time that you struggled to grasp the content; but, you ‘failed’ the mid-term exam. Can you remember a time in your life or the experience of your students that the ‘failure’ to learn at the mid-term actually motivated a positive growth in learning. What would be in the best interests of the student?

  • How would positive based assessment impact a student?
    • Why mark down incorrect understanding?
    • Why not reward correct knowledge?
    • Assessment at any time?
  • What would be the impact of students choosing their mode of assessment?
    • Unless the mode of assessment (a writing task in an English class for example) is germane to the assessment, why should the mode matter?
    • Can students show their understanding in multiple ways?
  • Could a student be assessed fairly at any time?
    • What if the student completes the learning task late? Does that change the amount they have learned?

What would be in the best interests of the teacher? The teacher has a set time-frame to assess every student – a semester, a week, a day perhaps. What would be fair to all of the students? If the teacher allows for maximum flexibility in assessment, are they setting the path to every student achieving their very best? What if the student does not display mastery at the same level as another student simply because the modality of the assessment does not allow for some expression of knowledge?

Suppose a science class is finishing a unit on the water cycle. One student might choose to be assessed traditionally by completing a paper based test. A second student may opt for more flexibility in how the information is presented and create a presentation with graphics and written paragraphs that explain the content. A third, less talented writer with test anxiety, may opt to create a dance that demonstrates the water cycle. All three students may have the same understanding. The mode of assessment will reveal different sets of knowledge.

The first student will show a prompted understanding of the knowledge deemed important by the teacher.

The second student – assuming they are a good writer – will be able to clearly articulate what they understand to be important in regards to the water cycle.

The third may be a highly accomplished dancer – and compose a dance that could be interpreted with all the same content as either of the first two students, but it is dependent on the teacher’s ability to understand the dance.

It seems there is a line between subjective assessment and objective assessment. Clear criteria, the correct and incorrect answers are set in one corner. As is the case with student one, accolades are given for reproducing the answer exactly as instructed. It is clear which student has the information and which does not. Some may argue that test anxiety gets in the way – a re-test on paper or even orally may be the remedy.

This is set against the modality of the student that creates their own mode of assessment and tells the teacher what they know. The second student clearly has done this.

The third student may need to interpret their work for the teacher, which is ultimately an oral report (a hybrid of student one and two); perhaps the second two students can even assesses their own work for their own grade. At what point is the assessment fair? At what point does the assessment support the learning of the student?

In life outside of school – which all teachers must consider in the instruction of students – the later, student created assessment, seems to be more applicable to growth. The answer to a real world problem rarely has a clear single solution. With the drive toward soft-skills such as flexibility and creativity this mode seems to be the most relevant. It also allows students to test how they want to be perceived in the world and how their ideas my be received. However, for the sake of teacher-ease and transparent fairness to the students, a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer is clearly the way to go.

 

 

Year One, Term One: Reflection

After ten years at Explorer West, in Seattle, I transitioned my teaching career in one of the most drastic ways possible. I left a secure teaching position – one where I knew the ins and outs of each day – one where I knew the faculty and the community exceptionally well – and I took a position at a growing school in Casablanca Morocco.

My teaching was tested. I was tasked with setting up a new program in a school that was still finding its way in secondary education. A growing middle school program was my first charge; teaching new content and new lessons my second. Three content classes at three different levels made for six different preps and plans. Plus I had an additional course in advisory and community service. The program was growing. I was the only teacher dedicated to the secondary program. We lacked a math/science teacher. The position was filled by the Head of School while a search was under way.

It took an entire term to find the replacement. The first term we were metaphorically treading water. We were making the best choices we could to keep the program going. We wanted to create a community that was student driven – empowering students in a community that fostered intrinsic learning. But the challenges of building a secondary program from the ground up  was tremendous.

The work changed when a math/science teacher was hired and collaboration could truly begin.

Teaching beyond Facts…

What does teaching beyond facts mean? I recently read a fascinating article on soft and hard skills in the 21st century. Here is a summary of the article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

The school system that most adults today grew up with should not be in the classroom of today. The memorization of facts is not the most valuable resource for a student. The analysis and understanding of information – using the information in a way that develops the student and prepares them for the future is more important.

We live in an ever connected world. The future that the children of today face is increasingly changing and complex. To prepare students for the world of tomorrow, a world we cannot fully understand, educators must teach 21st century skills. These skills include Social-emotional learning, Habits of Mind, character strengths and grit. But, these skills are often seen as “soft” or non-cognitive. How does an educator teach them in the classroom. A more interesting question is how does one know when the student has acquired the skill?

Students need to learn literacy and numeracy. These things are still important. Test scores reveal a piece of the puzzle that develops a student. But, teaching a clear skill such as multiplication or letter recognition is not the same as the application of the real-world math problem incorporated with constructing a building or the value that comes with understanding humanity when one interprets and analyzes a poem.

In a 21st century classroom, we distinguish between different types of thinking. We ask questions of varied complexity; from fact to analysis to an application of skills, students must learn to work in a variety of ways: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration. These skills move the student from the foundations of fact into the potential to apply their “soft” skills in a variety of situations.

What is uniquely different about these skills is that they are continually developed. The school can give each student the opportunity to practice critical and creative thinking, communication and collaboration through project based learning that targets these skills.
The full article can be found at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar16/vol73/num06/Hard-Thinking-about-Soft-Skills.aspx