Sunday, June 5, 2011

Evaluating Student Learning: Down the Rabbit Hole

I have often wondered why some teachers (perhaps even the majority?) evaluate students not on the progress made or even the learning attained across time, but rather measure at specific points in time and then let that measurement represent the totality of learning.  Seems epic to me--a past sealed off immutable to the present.  Allow me to be a bit more specific.

Image by Centralasian on Flickr.  Found Here.
Student A takes a math test during a Monday in April. Student A's work is evaluated and rendered a grade.  Let's say that grade is 42 (and it is not the answer to the universe). Student A corrects the mistakes s/he made (as required by the teacher), has the test signed by a parent, and returns both to the teacher.  A month later, Student A aces a math test and interestingly, the skills originally assessed on the April test are embedded into the May test. Something like: In order to solve X you needed to know Y.

At the end of the marking period, both tests along with other "evaluations" are added to the list of "count-ables" and form Student A's marking period grade.  What has been measured?  How valid is this system of add them all up and divide?  What does Student A learn about learning? Measurement? Evaluation?

Now in another classroom, perhaps across the hallway, Teacher B also evaluates student work using the same process with a slight difference: S/he "allows" learners to hand in the corrections (with full work showing) and then averages the two grades (1st attempt and corrections) to figure the final grade (the one that goes into the grade book).  In this scenario, what is the student learning about revision? correction? work? I have asked lots of Teacher Bs why the first grade isn't dropped from the grade book as the student has now demonstrated the learning?  The responses usually provided include: fairness (there are students who got all correct the first time and that should count more); standard-based evaluation (still not sure what that phase means); Puritan ethic (Makes students want to work harder to get everything "correct" the 1st time); practicing for high stakes test (you don't get a do over).

Wondering what you think about this. Is there some value to establishing points in time where a single test regardless of later performance represents what the learner knew/knows?  I can't help but think students must experience these situations like Alice in Wonderland:

Alice says, "If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn't be, and what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?"

You see?


  1. I wish I had something more profound to say than simply, no, I can see no value to establishing points in time where a single test represents what a learner truly knows. Period. There are so many extraneous factors, especially at the adolescent level.

    I recently, at the last minute, changed my final exam for 12th grade Government. Literally, four days before the exam, I chucked the 150 question, minutia-based exam and gave a final exam that asked students to write about 10 things they learned this year. I provided a list of over-arching themes we studied throughout the year and encouraged "outside-of-the-box thinking." I asked students to 'talk' to me on paper. Tell me what they learned and why it matters to them in the real world.

    Needless to say, I was astounded at some of the responses. One student even wrote, "Thank you for making us do the final this way. I didn't even realize how much I learned until you made me really think about it."

    p.s. ~ Students were given some options as to how/when they could complete the final. Think it is also important to note that, as well.

  2. These sort of assessments seem easier in the moment, but speaking from experience as a first-time teacher doing these sort of things - things modeled to me in the course of my pre-service study - I can tell you it makes for more stress and anguish in the long run. Often I would have anecdotes in my mind of times students demonstrated their learning outside of these cold tests, but then look at the numbers and wonder how I was going to reconcile everything. MC bubble tests may look easier, but to me they complicate things by trying to fit a complex person into a black and white system. How wonderful it would have been to feel confident and clear about assessments at the end of the year rather than second-guessing everything.

  3. @Suzie Just watched my husband struggle all day to write two final exams (for middle school students) which he is forced to give. Years ago his "finals" were incredible essays that invited out of box thinking and fit how he taught. Now as his teaching has been narrowed and confined he also has been forced to include multiple choice, etc in order for all finals to have a uniform look. I can't even imagine why anyone still uses midterms and finals, let alone in middle school.
    Glad you ditched the 150 questions and asked them to share their thinking. Makes me a bit sad that such an experience was so novel for them.

  4. @Mary Wow, such insight. Your line, "MC bubble tests may look easier, but to me they complicate things by trying to fit a complex person into a black and white system." is so true, especially when that MC test is an epic construct. When I taught, I kept a notebook with pages dedicated for each student and would post in labels where I wd record those anecdotes that happened in class or that i printed from communication w/ students (emails mostly). Realize today there are better high tech version that wd allow for greater collaboration. But regardless of how it is done, the day to day, class to class insights are critical. I also measured progress with each student, not simply points in time. This made a difference. Good luck to you. Love how you are thinking.

  5. it's so hard to even have these conversations Mary Ann. so yeah.. i guess i see.

    i don't know if you've seen this.. but this is how we're trying to redefine any type of formal assessment:

    i mean - you have to question what you're spending all your time assessing in the first place. and why.

  6. Monika, feeling more like Alice day by day:(


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