“You don’t make a pig fatter by measuring it.”
Try telling that to a pig farmer, Roger Douglas perhaps, if he’s still in the business. The epithet may have a grain of truth in regards to one individual pig over a short span of time Taking a longer diagnostic view and looking at a cohort of pigs and a control group, periodic measurement helps track the added value from different diets and improve porcine outcomes, prematurely terminal though they may be.
The new Government’s early move to institute a national testing regime in schools and provide better reporting to parents has really set the cat among the pigs. Teachers in New Zealand, especially in secondary schools, already have to deal with onerous assessment requirements, especially in respect to NCEA qualifications.
The inevitable suspicion is that not only our children going to be tested more rigorously but so are our teachers and schools. Some fear increased testing as a basis for school funding and performance pay for teachers and think that it will distort the learning system. Freakonomist Steven Levitt demonstrated that in the 1990s a significant minority of teachers in the Chicago public schools system cheated to boost test results either out of misguided concern for the pupils or, more likely, concern for their own careers in the face of the introduction of rather blunt “high-stakes” tests.
Some take extreme positions: according to the British Professional Association of Teachers the word “fail” should be banned from use in British classrooms and replaced with the phase “deferred success” to avoid demoralising pupils. They argue that telling pupils they have failed could put them off learning for life.
The key is to get the right balance of summative and formative assessment – assessment of learning and assessment for learning. Educational researcher Robert Stake uses this analogy: “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative. When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” He might have added that too many cooks can spoil the broth, especially if they’re using different recipes.
The tricky bit is developing the appropriate metrics to measure knowledge, skills and attitudes at the individual, class and school levels. In the end assessment practices depend on the theoretical framework of practitioners and their assumptions about the nature of human mind and the process of learning. New neurological insights are outstripping learning theory and practice.
Assessment and on-going feedback in a learning context is not just about ensuring a bedrock of minimum standards and fixing learning deficits. Used judiciously it supports the true goal of education: drawing out and developing the talents of individuals and adding to the intangible asset base of the nation in terms of what people know and can do.