Words I’d Like to Nix: Assessment

Almost twenty years ago, when I started teaching community college English, no one used the word assessment. Teachers assigned homework and group projects. They gave tests. Then this word started popping up, and soon, it became a major part of our job to “assess” whether our students had met the “student learning outcomes” of each course.

On its surface, “student learning outcome assessment” (SLOA, as it’s called in the community college system) doesn’t seem so bad. It can prompt teachers to be more conscious about the goals of their teaching and to see if students are meeting those goals. A thoughtful teacher can use assessments as a way to collect information about what methods seem to be working and which do not. Long before the state of California mandated SLOA, I conducted such mini-experiments in my own classroom, trying different strategies with different sections and comparing the results. These experiments were fun but often frustrating. As any teacher knows, a strategy that worked miraculously with one group can fail utterly with another. It was impossible to tell with any scientific accuracy what aspect of my teaching “worked,” when the same method produced such different results with a different group of students.

Over time, I realized that the more I tried to replicate a method, hoping for a repeat of a positive learning experience, the more likely I was to fail. It was only when I responded to the actual students in the classroom that I succeeded as a teacher. The teaching methods and strategies that I had learned from many years of experience helped a lot, but the crucial ingredient to effective teaching was my ability to be responsive, often in the moment, to the needs, ideas, and personalities in front of me. Sometimes, this means throwing out the lesson “plans” that had given me such great data the previous semester.

And this is why the word assessment troubles me. It’s a corporate word, and as such, it makes students into interchangeable widgets, without autonomy, agency, or individual needs. It implies that effective teaching can be engineered and replicated endlessly.

Even more troubling, assessment means that there is an Assessor, the entity with power, and the Assessed, the powerless—a Subject who determines what knowledge is important and whether it has been learned and Objects who must demonstrate their learning to the Subject’s satisfaction or else risk failing the course. But learning is not a passive endeavor, where one entity acts upon another. As Paulo Friere writes in Education for Critical Consciousness,

Knowing … is not the act by which a Subject transformed into an object docilely and passively accepts the contents others give or impose on him or her. Knowledge, on the contrary, necessitates the curious presence of Subjects confronted with the world. … It demands a constant searching. It implies invention and re-invention.

Friere argues that learners must be the Subject, not the Object, the actor, not the acted upon. In order to truly learn, Friere argues, the learner must “appropriate what is learned” and “re-invent that learning” so as to apply that learning to concrete situations in real life. Yet how can we—or can we?—assess whether a student truly “owns” their new knowledge? How can we assess whether our students are “curious” and “searching”?

It’s true that some learning can be assessed. We can assess whether a student knows whether to give 10 mg or 100 mg of a particular drug to a patient. I can assess whether my students can complete a sentence in a grammatically correct way. But these types of learning constitute surface learning. Deeper learning, which involves critical thinking and an ability to make connections, is the hardest to measure. Often, the most profound learning needs to time to incubate. A learner might backtrack and meander and dead end, and then discover a previously unknown route. In fact, learning might manifest as struggle, as failing a test, as an essay that looks like a mess because the student is engaging with complex ideas, ideas a little bit outside his grasp. The very student who performs poorly on an assessment might be thinking and learning a great deal. Of course, under the assessment mentality, this student is either a “bad student” or, more likely, the teacher is a “ineffective teacher.”

Assessment thus acts as a pressure on teachers, making teachers question their own competency and thus accept low wages and abusive workloads. Teachers already feel overly responsible for the failures of our students, and we often feel so responsible that we work extra (unpaid) hours, revising lesson plans, attending meetings and teaching conferences, or tutoring students with the hope that they will “meet the learning outcomes” or perform well on the standardized tests. But the reality is that much of what happens with respect to learning is out of our control. Learning environments and inspirations can be created by the teacher, but the learning is up to the students. They should be agents of their own learning and even decide what learning is important to them. Ironically, the entire school environment is antithetical to this, emphasizing student obedience and conformity rather than autonomy and creativity.

Which leads me to my final reason why I’d like to nix the word assessment. It’s a cold word, an impersonal word. It evokes data and profit margins, not human creativity and struggle. I’d prefer if we talked more about feedback. I’d like to see a system in which a teacher gives narrative feedback to herself, to other teachers, and to students; in turn, a student would give narrative feedback to herself, to other students, and to the teacher. This method of ongoing feedback would engage the critical faculties of everyone involved and be more responsive to students and teachers as humans, not widgets. Curious about narrative feedback? I’ll be writing more on this later this month.

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