Sunday, February 14, 2010

What is meaningful assessment?

How do we know children are learning? Do we have to use standardized tests, or are their other ways to make this determination?

In a recent New York Times Op-ed (Feb 2, 2010; Op-Ed. p A23), Susan Engel, director of the teaching program at Williams College, discusses several important components of assessing student learning: reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration. Why not develop criteria that assess these skills (or broader, school-based values) as a measure of student learning?

If we assess these broad skills, rather than merely test-taking skills, Engel believes that we will cultivate our students' long-term success. Engel argues that if students are able to demonstrate these skills (by age 12), then "...they would be prepared to learn almost anything in high school or college." While teachers can collaborate on the specifics of the curriculum, Engel has anchored the discussion of student assessment in values, i.e. what is it we value in public education.

According to Engel, one value is raising children rather than raising test scores. Rather than measuring factory-like outputs via a "...curriculum that is strangling students and teachers alike...," she wants educators and policy-makers to consider their process values, i.e. what experiences students and teachers could have.

At Science Leadership Academy (SLA) where I teach, we organize our curriculum around 5 core values that integrate of focus our learning (see Fig. 1 below). Although these criteria are not the same as Ms. Engel's, perhaps we need to extend some flexibility to schools to determine their own values that meet their specific students' and teachers' needs and interests. Once these values are in place, perhaps we can develop meaningful assessments that reflect students' and teachers' relation to the values.

Fig. 1: SLA's Core Value & sample assessment criteria
Inquiry Student demonstrates a variety of strategies to frame questions about, and investigate, the fictional and non-fictional world.
Research Student demonstrates a variety of strategies to gather and organize information.
Collaboration Student demonstrates a variety of strategies to work with and learn from a variety of people.
Presentation Student demonstrates a variety of strategies to share learning with a wider audience beyond the teacher.
Reflection Student demonstrates a variety of strategies to modify and enrich the learning process and outcomes.

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