Monday, September 12, 2011

Assessment from Esme

I am very pleased and honoured to have Esme Comfort, whose blog can be found here, to share her ideas on Assessment with me.  Below is a guest post from a Public school Trustee in Bow Valley.

"Said the Source" by Micah Lexier, Library Installation, Hamilton, ON Photo: Wendy Bush, with permission
Pleased and proud that the teacher, @d_martin 05 (as he is known on Twitter), has asked me to do a guest post on his blog. He is a highly committed educator who is always honing his skills.
The topic? “What is the best way to gauge a student’s progress in learning?” Or [drum roll] ASSESSMENT

You may as well ask, like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” because there is no one definitive answer. Rather it is a complex blend of sometimes competing interests that are served by student assessment; hence the choice of the photo above.
So what could this little old lady trustee have to offer to shine some light on the subject? First a disclaimer: I have no pedagogical credentials, just the experience of having been a student and having children who were/are students. Let’s start with some definitions and descriptions, per The Wikipedia of Esmé, i.e. my own best understanding, as a layperson.
                    Formative assessment is an approach to teaching and learning with feedback as its mainstay, in a supportive classroom context. Assessment is ongoing and student-centred. Differentiated instruction, the teacher as a lifelong learner and professional learning communities – and more – will factor into this process. Parents trying to wrap their heads around this idea will often exhibit these first responses: “What d’ya mean ‘no homework’? No report cards – what the...?”
                    Summative assessment is a measurement, at a specific point in time, of student learning relative to curriculum or course content. This is generally done by different sorts of tests, quizzes, set assignments with tight rubrics and so on. The Provincial Aptitude Tests and Diploma Exams are full-on examples. We are all very familiar with this “old school” methodology. Numerical marks or letter grades are usually awarded.

In my ideal world, summative assessment would only be used to inform formative assessment; PAT scores would not be published or shared, except between educators to use to inform their practice and diagnose trouble spots. Teaching and learning succeeds best, IMHO, when the teacher and the student are given respect and autonomy.
However, this is tricky stuff. Public schools are accountable to the children and parents, but also to the provincial government and the taxpayer. An easy way to determine if outcomes have been met is indeed the use of hard numbers and straightforward comparators. But what are the outcomes?
Should every student move to post-secondary education immediately after graduation? Well, all of life after high school graduation is post-secondary education, isn’t it? Hold it. Every student should graduate high school, right? At the same age and stage of life? We need to think which skills and attributes will best serve our students, will best prepare them for their individual futures. I believe those are much more difficult to – ahem – sum up. And much, much more difficult to teach.
For those of us who sat quietly at our desks, soaking up the wisdom dispersed by the pedant at the front of the room, the transformation of education will be hard to comprehend. Effective formative assessment means collaboration between teacher and pupil to adjust teaching and learning while they are happening. That was not my experience of school! That is why school district administrators and governors must involve the parents closely on this journey; it’s crucial to providing the support teachers need. Parents need to try to understand the process and work with the teachers to benefit the children.
When my first parent-teacher interview rolled around, some 20 years ago, I thought long and hard about how to use that precious 10 minutes. What did I want to know? At the time my two questions were:
                    How is my child doing, relative to the teacher’s perception of his capacity?
                    How is my child doing, relative to the progress of the other students in the class?

Now, it seems to me, I was really asking: “How well do you know my child?” That relationship is worth more to my child’s lifelong learning curve than the ability of the teacher to stuff facts/data into his head. Formative assessment means student and teacher are learning together, and the subject matter is always: the student. It demands more commitment, more rigour from both sides than a straight “drill and kill” testing regimen ever did. Successful students and successful teachers are “curious and curiouser” as a matter of course; the thirst for learning never is slaked.

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