Thursday, September 02, 2010

tools for assessment

In American schools, standardized testing has been adopted as the primary tool of assessment. In essence, a standardized test is a tool used to get a view of performance, or cognitive abilities, and in that way, it's similar to using a magnifying glass to examine bugs, a microscope to examine germs, or a telescope to examine the stars. But of course there is a difference in that these last mentioned tools are used to examine real things, not contrived amalgamations of narrow statistical slices of real people. We know that statistical examination of real stuff is subject to gross misinterpretation and distortion, even though the parties involved may have the very best of intentions.

Ivan Illich, in Tools for Conviviality states the following:
Tools are intrinsic to social relationships. An individual relates himself to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his self image. Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.
The point about the arts as a means of assessment is a matter of conviviality. To witness the arts as a tool for understanding is to participate in human growth. To attend a performance or demonstration of the arts in schools is an enrichment of community. In comparison, to pass out test scores may inflate the perceived potentials of some and drastically impede the perceived potentials of others. In the case of students in New York City public high schools who received B-level grades, but cannot pass basic placement tests at community colleges, Diane Ravitch said, "We are lying to our children." For many, demoralizaton by low test scores lead parents, and teachers to completely overlook the child's greatest potentials. That may not be criminal but should be.

Can you see that something should be done about this? All during the last 10 years, during both the Bush and Obama administrations, standardized testing has driven school development at the expense of the arts. Let's just cut the crap and get back to what is really important in schools. OK? Restoring the wood shop is the best place to start.

We think of assessment as something to assign to experts, and yet each of us is involved in the continuing assessment of our surroundings. We can tell whether something was done as a matter of care, or as a matter of expedience. For instance, as we stay in a New York apartment, I can't help but notice all the thick layers of paint applied over a half century of renovations. The paint in the photo above was applied layer upon layer, each time to make the place look better, but by never addressing the growing misshapen mass beneath, a display of real painting skill will never emerge. The photo above. What can you say? Is it an illustration of conviviality? The challenge of meaningful assessment is to use what we really know to counter the mis-perceptions of external expertise and then design schools and schooling in which children are allowed to reach their full potentials.

1 comment:

toysmith said...

This post sparked so many reactions in me. I just spent the entire afternoon in an assessment design meeting where we essentially worried about your line "We know that statistical examination of real stuff is subject to gross misinterpretation and distortion, even though the parties involved may have the very best of intentions."

I for one would like to see parents (and the public at large) think, reflect, and demand an education for their children that makes sense. Not one of "trust me, I'm an expert educator and know what's best for your kids." There are always more things to be learned than there is time, so we have to pick and choose: what's important, what can wait, what's a waste of time? Is it pointless for individual families to ponder these questions if there are no real choices within their local communities? I'd like to think the parents of your students made a conscious choice to align with the values of Clear Spring.

Do you know why schools are the way they are? In one word: inertia. We do things the way they've been done because good, well-intentioned people unconsciously conspire to keep them that way. And the more dissatisfied we are, the more we respond by insisting on tighter and tighter "accountability." What we should be asking for is creative diversity.