1. Assessment – Role of Teachers

This paper was written for a Northern Rivers Principals’ Conference, Tweed Heads, April 1990 that dealt with Assessment.

It is difficult to imagine why a teacher would want to give a test of achievement to a whole class and assign some sort of rating. I know that many do it, as I did before I came to grips with the full nature of learning in the classroom; and I also thought that it was expected of me.

Even the most thoroughly class-wide prepared tests, whether constructed by a professional test writer or expert diagnostician or thoughtful teacher cannot provide much assistance to aid children’s progress. Such tests are given in circumstances that are well apart from the learning experience, have little feed-back value and their only purpose seems to be the allocation of a score or mark for easy-to-test aspects of human behaviour.

A mark is sometimes called a grade, a score or a rating. Professor John Settledge who visited Australia from USA in 1975 had a definition of a ‘grade’. His American version of a ‘mark’ was seen as “…an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgement by a biased and variable judge, of the extent to which an undefined level of mastery of unknown proportions on an inadequate amount of material has been completed.” Yet, some of us have been perpetuating  such achievement-busters and shrouded the noxious influence that they have on pupil progress by using flash descriptors like ‘assessment’, ‘performance indicators’, ‘evaluation’ and more.

To make things worse, we invented some mystical ways of reporting to parents which, oft times left them confused, angry or disappointed in their children. It was cruel, although some parents, especially those of brighter pupils liked percentages and class placement. The outcomes were bad enough, so we used letters of the alphabet or some other fuzzy indicators what were just as inappropriate as a ‘mark’.

Everybody knows that a reliable measurement of almost any human activity would show that half of the cohort performs at less than average whether it was bowling a cricket ball at a stump, kicking a football through some posts, lobbing a goolie in a spittoon or doing a mathematics test. A bell-shaped curve can be drawn about accomplishments in almost any human activity.  However, we managed to persuade parents that nearly everybody is above average. That’s no mean feat.

Some of us gave tests [I did. Hands up!] and announced the results in public or semi-public arenas in the name of ‘healthy competition’. We violated the sensitivities of children and defied the conventions of confidentiality.  Society, we opined, was intensely competitive and we needed to teach kids how to handle it from as young an age as possible. If this argument was valid, we should have combined other elements of a competitive society – lying, cheating, conning, bad-mouthing and the normal subtleties of a structured free-enterprise system. On second thoughts, we actually encouraged such talents as part of the hidden curriculum, without meaning to do so.

One would hope that things might have changed over the past few decades. Hopefully, we are now able to teach children how to evaluate their own progress in a positive developmental way. For us to assign a mark or grade or judgement to another’s academic performance without sharing the detail is surely immoral. Well, it is not very nice, anyhow. Real teachers don’t do things like that. Pretend teachers may, to satisfy some unfeeling superior being [as Eichmann did] or to waste good time. Those who work full bore with a class group for a full teaching day over an extended period of time don’t need to do this, surely.

For those who persist in testing, appraising, assessing or evaluating or whatever semantic mix we use, we can only hope that they get it right and use the terms properly. It is about time that we sorted out the meanings and pondered over the practices to which they refer. With a positive, cheerful attitude we need to ask ourselves why we do what we do, and consider the possible consequences of our actions.

EVALUATION Evaluation is a personal process that helps us to do better. It is a legitimate, useful thing to encourage in schools. It exists. It’s the biggest and most important subject in the curriculum. It is continuous, inlaid into every topic and subject.  It is about building a desire to improve ourselves as we learn and has nothing to do with threatening people, comparing results or classifying people. It is part and parcel of the learning enterprise.

Ask sportspeople and artists about the skills that they require. They will break them up into components and tell you about how they are trying to work on the more important bits. I don’t know of any great sports person who does not share personal evaluation with a coach/teacher or professional/ teacher whom they trust, no matter how good they are.

Evaluation is a careful judgement that we make, in some way or other, about our own performance. A teacher is a person who can share achievements with us and guide us along the way.  Teachers know that, in the learning process, feelings and beliefs are more important that scores. Their efforts are directed at helping children to feel more confident about what they do.

TESTING Testing is a careful examination of what we are doing so that we can gain on overall view of our performance. It is part of our evaluation processes. There is a natural need to test ourselves on our performances and to try things out so that we can improve. It forms part of our ongoing appraisal of how we are going.

There are millions of testing devices. The worst are paper-and-pencil responses to concocted questions from some distant non-schoolie. The need for testing is personal, applied at the crucial moment.

We can measures our progress in many ways and only a few parts of a school curriculum can lend themselves to a quantitative score of some sort. Sometimes the teacher ‘needs to know’ on a whole-class basis. The teacher needs some information at that point in time and the pupil supports the notion because it helps. It’s a classroom device that needs to be performed sparingly for it is more likely to have a deleterious effect than a supportive.

Announcing or comparing scores on whole-class scores is grossly immoral unless the pupil or its parent has given permission to do so. It can ruin the zest for further learning.  In the TV comedy, ‘Happy days’, Fonzie once remarked, “Grades ain’t cool; learnin’s cool.”

APPRAISAL There are points along the learning track where we think, quite seriously, about our progress. We judge the quality of our efforts on a largish canvas. Such appraisal does not need to have a scoring function, It is a subjective judgment of quality. Perhaps some sort of test might help us to make  such judgments and our teacher will have advice to offer and provide access to various devices.

It is the sort of thing one does when school progress and personal future is discussed with one’s parents and/or other important adult. It is a generalised thing containing important detail. Such appraisal will help us to make some serious decisions – whether to continue with feelings of confidence or with doggedness or with feelings of inadequacy that might need some repair.

It is different from an ASSESSMENT and of much greater importance. Assessments are used by real estate agents, insurance companies and used-car salesmen. They fix a score or a value; and the learning process is too complicated and too lively to nail any part of it to the wall.

In the school context, when the assessment function does all of the above and assigns marks or grades or scores at each part of the process, like pure testing, it is dangerous.

I conclude with the distribution of a list of quotations assembled by evaluation guru, David Ham, whose own comment I have moved to the top of the list to honour his effort. Take them home and nail them to your office wall.

‘Failing is more than a simple mark or percentage. It is a state of mind, an attitude, a miserable acceptance of defeat. Children know of their problems long before we do. I wonder how many slow learners have been converted into non-participants because teachers have used sledge-hammer tactics to display to all and sundry what the victims [and probably the teachers] already knew.” Ham

‘Testing should never be carried out without a real purpose. If it is done simply to complete a column beside a child’s name, then the time would have been better spent in teaching.’ Bullock Report, England

‘The purpose of evaluation is not to prove, but to improve.’  Stufflebeam

‘We all make mistakes…but to lower the dignity of a child and not to be aware that the dignity has been impaired, is a very serious matter.’ Clark Moustakas

‘For every child who profits from competition, there are several who are harmed by it. There is no greater source of inefficiency in school methods of teaching than the dependence on competition as a motivator. The real business of learning is concerned with performing better today than yesterday or last week. It has absolutely nothing to do with performing better than someone else. Children want to learn any developmental task in order to be the same as their peers – not better than them.’  Don Holdaway

‘Errors are feedback. An error is a judgement, an essential part of learning.’ Labinowicz

‘The general point is that whenever a value is set which can only be attained by a few, the conditions are ripe for widespread feelings of personal inadequacy. An outstanding example of this is the fierce competitiveness of the school system. NO SOCIAL SYSTEM IN THE WORLD has so many examinations, or emphasises grades, rating or marks so much. The superior achievement of one person tends to debase the achievement of another.’ Rosenberg

‘Schools tend to be agencies through which children find out very rapidly how they rank.’ Don Holdaway

‘A positive attitude to errors is perhaps the most important step in controlling anxiety’ Barnes