Spare Some Change?

CC Photo Credit: roadsidepictures

We get so weary, taking fish off hooks
It’s not as effortless as it may look

~Fight~The Tragically Hip~

It’s encouraging that the topic of assessment, evaluation and reporting has become a hot topic of conversation across Canada, even if the catalyst for this was the issues around the Edmonton high school teacher who was suspended for failing to follow his district’s policies. After 35 years of teaching, with what were likely lots of great moments, our colleague from Alberta will likely have this issue define his career~which is really too bad.

Teachers are so much more than number-crunching mark machines. We have interests and hobbies, strengths and weaknesses, families and real lives (and we don’t, as my grade 1 students once believed, sleep at the school). Teachers are also members, as James Stigler reminds us, of the only profession where one does a 20 year apprenticeship before one ever decides to become one. In addition, we carry out our craft under circumstances where we work with parents who send us their precious children and all have experiences with school; the double whammy of blatant self-interest infused with home-grown status as education ‘experts’. No wonder assessment, evaluation and reporting ties so many of us in knots and steals our precious sleep.

With all of the debate, rhetoric and reminiscing swirling about, there are two observations I have to share about the events of the past week:

My first observation is that we have to work on improving the consistency of practice in the area of assessment. For the past 20 years, classroom-based research and meta-anaylis of research studies have supported the use of assessment for learning; specifically the use of descriptive, formative feedback, rather than numeric scores, to improve student learning and motivation. In spite of this, we still have a wide range of assessment beliefs and practices, many of which represent an ad-hoc mutation of assessment for learning with more traditional practices, all based upon teacher preference or practice knowledge. This is confusing to students, confusing to parents (who are inclined towards the traditional practices they knew) and confusing to the public in general. Has. To. Change.

My second reflection is that our pre-service, induction/mentorship programs and school principals will have to increase and intensify the programming and supports they offer in the area of assessment and evaluation. In my role as a school administrator, previously as a pre-service adjunct professor, even going back 2o years to my own beginning; a constant pattern has been the struggles that new teachers have in the area of assessment, especially assessment for learning. Often, the challenges and stresses of teaching (which is, trust me, an incredibly stressful job) lead teachers to revert to what they knew, and not what they know, about assessment. In order to maintain positive parent relationships, assessment for learning~which is complex and difficult to explain~is sacrificed in favour of the old familiar numbers and marks. Has. To. Change.

In the blogging world, chat rooms, talk shows and on Twitter, lots of opinions have been shared, but to quote the wise philosopher Anonymous, “With out data you’re just another person with an opinion.” The research is clear and compelling, assessment for learning is the most effective way to improve student learning and is particularly effective with struggling and at-risk learners. Our professional standards of practice require us to use best-practices. Not knowing how, or choosing not, to use assessment for learning in our classroom practice can no longer be the case; this has to change.

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