Assessment in education provides the stepping stones that make progress concrete.
We have to assess students’ learning somehow or we lose our sense of purpose and direction. Assessment is a must, but are we doing it in the most effective way? Does the way we gauge progress incite a celebration of knowledge? Or does the very word “test” strike fear into the hearts of even the most avid students? Do stereotypical tests draw forth students’ potential? Are they an effective tool for an authentic education? Does filling in bubbles let a student express latent potential or make lasting connections between what they learn and how they live? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it. (And don’t actually call me a cynic.)
So what do we do? How do we fix it? The answer is simple, but everything that needs to fall into place for the answer to become a reality is very complex.
The answer is individualized and cooperative assessment. That may seem like a conflict of interest, but the two aren’t inherently mutually exclusive. Individualized assessment lets students represent their learning in a way specific to how they’ve internalized the information. Cooperative learning lets students work together, bounce ideas, and feel more motivated in their learning.
If student/teacher ratios were such that teachers had time to assess their students on an individual level, students could express what they learned in personally meaningful ways. Rather than bubble filling and rote repetition of mundanely memorized, superficially internalized facts, students could create something to show what they’ve learned and how that knowledge relates to their lives. If one student makes sense of the world by writing, let him write a paper. If another prefers to interpret and represent her learning in visual art, let her paint her knowledge. Let each student choose how to showcase what he or she has learned. Let the learning matter to them.
If our assessment paradigm shifted toward a cooperative/collaborative model rather than a competitive model, students could work together to achieve greater results. Educational psychologist Arthur Combs says in his book, Helping Relationships, “Left to themselves, people will compete only rarely, and then only when they feel a chance of success. Forcing people to compete can only result in discouragement and rebellion.” Thus, an assessment model based on competition (grading on a curve) alienates those of the student body who don’t think they can win. Forcing students to compete creates tension and a disharmonious learning environment. Cooperative learning and assessment is more inclusive and facilitates social growth. And, frankly, it’s much more practical. The real world assesses people on their ability to perform in group situations, not in isolation.
I believe that people rise to the expectations we have of them. If we expect our students to create and thrive in their own assessment opportunities, I believe they will. Why not let them decide (on a class and individual basis, depending on the nature of the subject) how to gauge their progress? If the students choose how to represent their knowledge, assessment can be personally meaningful (individualized) and group facilitated (cooperative). And, most importantly, it can be a celebration of what they know rather than a bitter reminder of what they don’t.