I’m currently on a break during our Provincial Curriculum Committee Meeting. I really like this group as we generally spend part of the time sitting with Alberta Education and talk about what direction we are headed and changes that need to be made.
One of the ideas that came forward today was that the #1 purpose of assessment is to understand and work with students to operate the classroom in a way that benefits students in that it informs teaching and learning decisions. Our approach to assessment, if we keep this definition in mind, doesn’t seem to make sense in light of current practice in Alberta. Assessing an individual student, or a group at the end of a year might inform teaching, but not in the way that benefits that student in a dynamic and powerful way.
There have been times where assessment has been used to compare students and classes, to filter students for future programs, motivate students, plan classroom and school programs, provide information to outside agencies, and other reasons. It could be argued that most reasons for assessment have value, and they probably do. We have to assess. It’s one of the important jobs we do.
No one would disagree that assessment is a necessary part of our job, but unless the assessment directly impacts the student assessed, I believe it is not serving its full and best purpose. There is some talk in Alberta to looking more towards testing the younger students at the beginning of the year because that would more directly drive the teaching in a way that impacts the students writing the test. This approach would inform the teacher about each student’s strengths and the areas of need. This type of assessment seems to be empowering, rather than based on looking for teacher or student skill gaps which can’t be easily addressed.
A lot of assessment though, can only occur at the ground level – Teachers, in the classroom, working with the students, observing and working with students daily to assess ability, diagnose need and measure progress. Teachers who have set goals with the students and provide their expert services to move the learning and skill development along. It would make sense, then, to focus the resources and time we have around the idea of assessing where it will have the most impact. Teachers already complain that they spend more time assessing than they do teaching. I know in some situations that that may not be far from the truth.
Let’s make assessment count. Make it about the student being assessed. Benchmarks at the beginning of the year serve a much clearer and pragmatic purpose than Provincial Achievement tests at the end of the year. Especially for the youngest students. Assessment can and does serve a variety of purposes, but none are as important as those that directly affect the one being assessed.