I want you to reflect on this question, “When was the last time your performance was measured by a written multiple choice test?” There will be few of us who have had our performance measured by a single test in our adult life. Our performance cannot be captured on a single or even a series of tests. Our performance is dynamic and contextual and multiple indicators are required for accurate assessment. Yet, in education, we continue to give the “test” to measure the performance of students, schools and divisions!
Why do we continue to only measure, what I would consider, the lowest form of learning, namely achievement? I would suggest that there are at least three main reasons on our continuance to measure achievement only. The first is that measuring achievement is fairly easy. Tests are easy to create and easy to mark. “There you go, you received 76.32% on your exam.” My issue with this achievement measure is what does that percent really mean? Does the student know 76.32% of the material on the test, or 76.32% of what was taught or 76.32% of the curriculum? And really, what is the difference from a learning perspective between a mark of 76%, 78% and 80%? Achievement testing may be quick and easy but does it really measure what we want it to measure?
The second reason that achievement is measured so readily is that it is easily communicated and understood. Parents grew up in the era of marks and grades and therefore they speak that language. Many still want to know their child’s percentage score and gulp… their child’s ranking in class. With an input of the marks and a push of the button, we can calculate just how well the child is doing compared to the class average! Educators can defend their grades given based on the list of assignments, quizzes and tests that generate the mark. Achievement testing many be easy to communicate but does it communicate the right thing?
Lastly, measuring achievement provides for and supports an somewhat archaic accountability system. Governments, school divisions, schools and even some teachers can hold up their test scores and say, “See, aren’t we doing well!” Education funding is substantial and achievement testing is seen as a good analysis of how our tax dollars are being spent…wisely! It also suggests that this accountability system is how the real world is and a requirement for university. If that is the real world, then there should be an awful lot of people out of work because many of us in our current jobs would be unable to simply write a test for our performance to be evaluated. Secondly, with less than 20% of our students entering university, is it really fair to create a system that only works for that few? Achievement testing may be good for accountability but is it good for children?
Let me give you a couple more divergent scenarios to reflect upon before I speak to learning. Does the number of years a couple is together be the only indicator of a good marriage? Does the young adult who passes his or her written driving exam automatically know how to drive well? Simple numbers or achievement scores alone can only tell us a small part of the story. Learning is much more difficult to measure and far more complex. Learning must be measured (to be truly accurate and meaningful) through an outcomes based approach. And although many elementary schools follow an outcome based model, it must go much deeper. It must involve the competencies that our students require for this ever-changing world. It must focus on the skills required to address the mismatch between education outcomes and labour market needs as suggested by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in the document Public Education 2.0.
This type of learning requires a shift from content focused to competency based. Knowledge is no longer sacredly held by only the adults in the school. It is readily available and easily accessible. Learning for tomorrow is about creating citizens and developing character. When was the last time you saw that on a multiple choice exam? Learning is about collaboration and networking with others… we usually call that cheating in school! Learning is about innovating, creating, problem solving and critical thinking. Those are best measured though performance and projects not multiple choice tests. Learning is suppose to be about real life and in real time. Learning is suppose to be rigorous and FUN!!!
Learning, the type that we really want our students to be engaged in, is not only difficult to measure but hard to explain. It requires our educators to have not average but exceptional background in assessment. It requires our educators to be able to clearly communicate what learning looks like so that their students and parents and the public fully understand. It requires our educators to be truly reflective of their own practice and be willing to let go of pedagogy that does not enhance the spirit of learning fully. It is an uphill climb but, if we truly want to transform education and develop engaged thinkers, ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit, we must be willing to tackle the task of measuring learning and not just achievement.