Silly Adults, Assessment is for Kids!

Sometimes, we just want to know, objectively, how things are – their current state of being, general direction, gist, and so on. My kid won’t mix red and tan foods. Every time Junior misses a basket, he screams an obscenity. Can Suzy divide fractions? Stuff is complex. Confusing.

What makes everything clearer is a number; ideally, a number associated with a ranking against peers. A score. A percentile. Normed. Benchmarked. Clear.

And so, there are numerous providers willing to sell us objective measurement and ranking for a fee (and an investment of time). Often, these assessments come bundled with instructional materials to address trouble spots highlighted by the assessment (for an additional fee).

These tests will tell us something, and it is easy to imagine that that something is an objective truth. What is instead true is that the testing industry (and its “personalized” online instruction twin sister) provides nothing of real-time value to teachers that they can’t learn themselves from examining evidence of student learning with colleagues. Add-on tests from outside the learning context dilute instructional program coherence. Which is bad.

So, why do it? Oh, right. We want to know something. We need feedback on learning. We want accountability. And we, for sure, are the adults. 

But assessment is not FOR adults. If assessment is for any adults, it is for the adults doing the instructing, planning, and assessment. Few of those adults are asking for more standardized testing.

So, which adults? Probably politicians, parents, and administrators, in that order.

In a recent (and otherwise blase & forgettable) article in IB World magazine entitled “Big Data, Big Problems?”, Bettina Berendt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Leuven argued that “a normalization of surveillance” is going on “that will ultimately weaken democratic learning and consciousness.” Data of the sort produced by these spurious tests serve economic interests first (of the companies themselves, to start), as Berendt points out, and this reality is frightening both for its implications for society and its effect on kids and teachers.

Berendt argues that big data and algorithms “cause labelling which can negatively effect development,” which is spot-on. Why? “They create an atmosphere where students and teachers feel under surveillance, where they feel under pressure to perform all the time. Traditionally, learning environments have a protected and safe nature. This absence of fear and competitive pressure, at least in phases, is really crucial for learning.”


Assessment for adults creates a false sense of security, of managing learning and the learning environment, or perhaps comfort in the selection of a school that works. Instead, especially when wed to an ecosystem of online gradebooks and invasive “learning management systems” that report to parents on a daily (or immediate) basis like Google Classroom, schools erect a surveillance system that produces social pressure and stress that runs counter to the mindset and culture demanded for optimal learning.

Then the educators probably tweet something pithy about the value of failure. Guilty as charged right here.

Assessment for kids provides feedback on learning – holistically or against specific benchmarks – and prioritizes growth. Assessment for adults seeks to control somebody. Educator should reject totalitarian education, no matter how well intended it seems.

As schools seek answers in the complex world, adopting easy tools that fill a need to know, or to appear good, or to measure what is knowable through far more valid means, we should, to paraphrase Albert Schweitzer, spare a moment’s thought for the suffering of children which we spare ourselves the sight in the process.


Independance Day Musings: Democracy & Education

A large number of human relationships in any social group are still upon the machine-like plane. Individuals use one another so as to get desired results, without reference to the emotional and intellectual disposition and consent of those used. Such uses express physical superiority, or superiority of position, skill, technical ability, and command of tools, mechanical or fiscal. So far as the relations of parent and child, teacher and pupil, employer and employee, governor and governed, remain upon this level, they form no true social group, no matter how closely their respective activities touch one another. Giving and taking of orders modifies action and results, but does not of itself effect a sharing of purposes, a communication of interests.

Dewey, John (2009). Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education (Kindle Locations 157-161). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

On a beautiful day in Switzerland, July 4, 2011, I am reminded of the power of true, open democracy to shape people into a society. I am also reminded of something a consultant said to me once. She was from a private company in Florida hired to fix my school on the Navajo Nation which had been placed in the NCLB solitary confinement cell called “Restructuring.” We were learning structures for getting feedback from students and using this feedback not to influence instruction so much, but more to get kids to buy into certain structures being laid down from this corporate consultant. When someone asked what to do if the feedback didn’t support the prescribed structures, the consultant said: “Well, you can do a degree of facilimanipulation.” Facilitate to manipulate. Nifty.

This is the Fox News discussion model. Students in this chronically disfunctional school wouldn’t be given a voice democratically. Instead, I would stand before them, the Anglo Sage, and manipulate them with a guise of cheer and helpfulness to swallow whatever I was handing down from on high (which had been handed down to me from on higher). Beyond the historically appalling subtext, the text itself is terrible: facilimanipulate. This Frankenword has become an ironic joke between my wife and I, but I can understand it’s lazy appeal – trick the kids into thinking they count. Yikes. See quote above – no shared purposes or communicated interests in this essentially authoritarian model.

So, I consider today ways to continue making students real partners in the classroom, with agency in their learning process and experiences. I’m planning action research in a new course (for me) entitled “Digital Journalism.” Together, students and I will explore how best to learn through experience about doing journalism and publishing work in an online student newspaper. It’s very easy to give up the reigns in this course because I’m clearly not an expert journalist, so our shared purpose together will be learning the subject through actually doing it. I’m really excited because students shaping this course is meta-agency – students will help design the course in order to publish their work. Hard work, but good work, ahead. Maybe we’ll even form a mutually beneficial social group!

John Dewey had some great ideas 90 years ago and you can read them for free today! Happy Independence Day!