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.


On Innovation vs. Regeneration

Innovation – we want some. Let’s do the new stuff, re-envisioning the old to make something better! I saw a graphical version of this blog post recently, an argument centered on torquing Dweck’s “growth” vs. “fixed” or (my preference) “entity” mindset concepts past their core purpose in order to “go beyond” to an innovator’s mindset. This argument means well, but sort of misses Dweck (imo) and focuses on an implicit value in new! shiny! that has some flaws.

From Juicero’s failed $400 juicer (expensive juice packets not included) to this little gem that popped up this week in my feed – Teamosa (#innovationnamingconventions) – a $399 tea kettle (early bird just $239!!!) that uses “ultrasonic extraction” to amp up antioxidant… oh, never mind, you get it: Innovation is often underwhelming and focused on selling us something we already have at a new, improved, higher price.

Recently, I worked with a colleague to refine an existing rubric for an essay to include specifics about the modes of exposition and rhetorical strategies that students would be expected to use. I realized that this process of reworking the rubric, refining for specificity and clarity of outcomes, was an inquiry for the teacher himself. We were digging into what good looks like on this sort of essay in response to a specific unit of inquiry into text and personal beliefs. We discussed lining up exemplars, as well, to really nail down the rubric and expose the expectations for the assessment.

None of this was new, really. But it was better. Better for student learning, better for teacher learning, so therefore better for instruction, better for assessment. By engaging in a process of regeneration, we built together on the good that existed in this rubric and this unit of study, standing on the shoulder of giants like Grant Wiggins in the process. I don’t think this is innovation, because we’ve got nothing to sell to anyone at the end of the process, and we aren’t done at the end of the process. We reflect, refine, and start again at the beginning of the process, which is a lousy product and a precious learning experience.

Regeneration guides authentic teacher learning by doing and, ideally, inquiry into learning evidence. Just as schools teach content – so out of fashion – like texts or mitosis or Reconstruction, schools teach teachers how to best guide learning through working on the work, regenerating and refining what is already good to be better. Just as students can’t think deeply without rich, relevant facts and content to dig into, neither can teachers build ever more effective skills, practices, strategies, approaches, skills, or theories on what’s best in all of the above without something real to work on and improve.

Innovation can look like anything, really, and can certainly be good, at least for a while. One of my mentors, the inimitable Julie Horowitz, told me once that kids are not experiments, which is right. We needn’t be stuck repeating the follies of old to play it safe, though, but should lean on expert teachers and well-founded evidence of what works. Teachers, like students, need the “more knowledgeable other” of Vygostky to guide their continued growth as practitioners across the multiple axes of good teaching. Happily, that can be anyone with expertise and care enough to share – that degree of “more” knowledge or skill in a given area.

Regeneration honors what is good and old – Dewey, dialogue, Duvel – by re-conceptualizing, reinvigorating what works in order to know and be able to do it. Students coming to a deep conceptual understanding of how and why the quadratic equation works aren’t inventing anything, but are at once learning real content and becoming experts in the process of gaining expertise itself – the learning process. Teachers inquiring into their work and refining it to become demonstrably more useful for students in the process of learning themselves are learning by regenerating.