Assessing Whole Students

by Matthew Koslowski on May 19, 2010
in Essays

“When I become a teacher, my students are going to look at my syllabus and say, ‘You expect us to do what now?’” my friend D. said. “I believe in the multiple-intelligences theory.”

We talk about the freedom that the Digital Age has given us for self-expression.

But has it really? The Internet is, largely, a text-based medium. Yes, we do have websites that are visual galleries but, for example, the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — and even the galleries themselves — are filled with text.

Writing is becoming an ever more important skill. Kara Miller wrote an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe, “Failure to communicate“, in which she discusses how weak are the writing skills of incoming college students.

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

–Kara Miller

I have thought about this problem myself as I pursue becoming a teacher. Robyn Jackson in her book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching suggested if students are weak on developing opening paragraphs for essays, give them assignments just on opening paragraphs; if they are weak on topic sentences, give them assignments on topic sentences; if they are weak on the structure of an entire essay, give them assignments to write entire essays. I think of the hundreds of students I will have and how long it will take just those shorter assignments.

I admire D. She’s very passionate about challenging her future students and encouraging them to think for themselves. I admire that she wants to use a portfolio system — requiring tests, essays, presentations, and class participation — rather relying solely on one channel. In fact, that is the kind of assessment system that I want to use. But I wonder how much of our time employing that is going to require.

I have thought about giving students two grades per paper. The first for their grammar and the second for their arguments. Reading Kara Miller’s op-ed article, I wonder if I can really separate the two. If the student does not clearly spell out what he or she meant to say, then the teacher is just guessing at the meaning.

D., by her own admission, did not get the best grades in high school. She was not interested in the history she was taught and only rarely in the books. Her interests were more attuned to what she’s now studying, philosophy and psychology. She did not feel engaged with the work and as such did not care about the assessments she was given.

“Middle and high schools do not teach critical thinking,” she asserts.

I remember feeling that way as well. Disagreeing with the teacher in an essay was often a recipe for a bad grade, even in honors and advanced placement classes. And this was before the institution of high stakes testing in Massachussetts.

How can the MCAS assess critical thinking?

It cannot, and we should not expect it to measure that. The MCAS presents the items as if everything can be categorized as right or wrong. We can agree that Shakespeare wrote sonnets and plays, that his works were written in iambic pentameter, often rhyming; we can agree that Thomas Hardy wrote novels and poetry, perhaps we can even agree that it was the poor reviews of critics of his poetry that pushed him to writing novels; and we can call facts forms in which authors wrote, works that are attributed to them.

But on the meaning of the work, on the interpretation of the works, there is plenty of room for disagreement. You may think this passage was parody, was an ironic comment on something; I may think the author meant it as stated. The author cannot tell us and, in truth, I wouldn’t want him or her to clarify.

Ambiguity is good for thought.

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6 Responses to “Assessing Whole Students”
  1. Lee Marcotte says:

    As I progress in my own career and watch you as you develop your teaching career, I become more convinced that measuring educational outcomes is an area that educators have a tenuous grasp on.

  2. Although I wrote before that a book, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, was damaged in the deluge, I was wrong and the book dried out. Not that I’ve read it since then, but at least I have the option to read it in the future.

    I do remember reading — whether it was in Measuring Up or another book or article on the subject, I do not immediately recall, though I think I mentioned it in a previous post — that what we want to measure with tests is beyond what tests are capable of measuring.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think tests are important. The ability to recall when asked to do so is an important indicator of one type of learning. Recognition, while similar to recall, is another type of learning. But they need to be integrated into a battery of assessments to give an accurate picture of the abilities of people.

    This is what politicians seem to forget. Recall and recognition, the skills that are assessed on short answer, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple-choice questions, are just one type of learning among many. You cannot demonstrate your ability to synthesize sources, for example, or your ability to discern and separate good information from bad on these types of tests, or at least not as reliably as in other forms that are more difficult — or, if not more difficult, at least more time consuming — to grade.

  3. D says:

    One of the things I would like to emphasize from our conversation is the bit about multiple intelligences. I firmly believe that the portfolio style of assessment can (and really should) be implemented in any classroom. In my travels through Academia, I’ve come across learners from here, there and everywhere and the more people I meet, the more convinced I am that there is more than one way to be intelligent, and that fact needs to be reflected in the way that educators test their students. The tests should be designed to draw out the students’ understanding of the topics and their ability to think critically about them. That’s why I’m so keen on using multiple measures; if a person does particularly well on certain kinds of assignments, but fails at others, I think some additional grade weight should be given to the areas where he or she shines (while also encouraging him or her to improve in the weaker areas). This is not, of course, to suggest that grades should be adjusted so everyone gets an A, but rather that the grades should reflect the effort put in and the understanding that comes out of it.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    I agree that a teacher should not adjust scores so that everyone gets an A. I worry about grade inflation. When I grade, I want it to reflect how I think the student did, whether he or she met the goals I set out. But a failing grade or even a lower passing grade can have such an impact on a student’s life and self-esteem.

  4. John Spencer says:

    I used to rail against all standardized tests. I still do, sometimes. Yet, I’m moving more toward a blended approach – realizing that the real enemies are the false dichotomies and ideologies we develop to prove that “our theory” is right.

    A test can measure certain discreet skills like fluency or phonemic awareness. They can be decent diagnostic tools that tell part of the picture. I can see their value in addition to formative assessment, portfolios, reflections, etc.

    Learning is always a paradox. See, I just used an absolute statement to suggest that there aren’t too many absolutes. The whole notion that even the learner knows what he or she has learned seems a bit absurd to me. The mind will always remain a mystery.

    I enjoyed this post and it got me rethinking issues of assessment and instruction. I wish you would elaborate on the whole notion that the computer tends to be text-based. I honestly have never heard someone articulate that before and I think you’re onto something there.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    I agree that there is a place for tests. But should tests be so central? I am not so sure.

    The idea of a “standardized test” in the sense of representing a standard that people are measured against is valuable. We use the standard of inches and feet to measure things and people don’t rail against inches. Even though that is what is meant by a standardized test, that’s not what people have come to think of when they think of a standardized tests.

    The problem is that standardized tests are too often multiple choice tests. I still find fault with multiple choice tests because they are easier than recall tests. If you are asked to write a short answer definition of the word, “inculcate” you’ll be unable to guess.

    You liked the idea of computers being text-based? Maybe I’ll expand my thoughts on that in the near future.