Some challenges in education (part 2) – Assessment

If you’ve missed challenges 1 and 2, and what got me into writing this series, you can read that here.

Challenge 3 – How do we shift our current educational system from a summative-based to a formative-based system? Is it possible to make such shift?

Who is really failing? Photo by Hans Gerwitz

Tests are everywhere, not only in school. Tests, obviously, come in different forms. One may be assessed based on his performance, on how fast a task is completed, or on how well one relates with one’s co-workers. We’ve all seen, or at least heard of, performance assessment sheets. I was listening to a successful businessman talking on the radio about what is it that guarantees people’s jobs. He didn’t worry about painting a beautiful setting, his answer was a rather dry “RESULTS”. He even added that you can write many different books on what is important in the business world, or what you may have to do in order to keep your job, but it all boils down to the results you get.

In school, we’ve learned to equate results with grades. This isn’t necessarily so, and there are many examples of people who have, successfully, abandoned grading from their curriculum, as you can read here. Now, I’ve been reading Joe’s blog for quite a while now even though I don’t think we ever went past few tweets to one another once. I also think that the ultimate goal of education should be the learning of something, and that learning is not measured by grades. There are a lot of other ways for us to assess whether or not learners have grasped the necessary concepts in order to be able to understand more complex thoughts – if you’re thinking about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, you got what I meant.

The key problem, as I see it, at least so far, is that we’ve come to a time where testing is the only form of assessment known by most teachers and schools. Testing is just a tiny bit part of assessment, and there are many other forms of noticing learning, but none is as practical as testing. Testing may not be, on its vast majority, authentic, and they may lack validity and reliability, but it also depends a lot on who is preparing the test and how careful this person is. I don’t think the problem with testing lies entirely with testing, but mainly with those who are preparing the tests.

Teachers move on to standardized tests that fail to correctly assess learners for a couple of reasons, and one of these reasons may be time. I once had 15 groups of 48 students each. This meant I had 720 students to assess. In addition to that, these students were going to go through an entrance examination for university in which they’d be in fierce competition against thousands of other students for one spot at university. Their whole educational setting is based on preparing students to pass these tests. Now, they had to constantly be given feedback on how well they were progressing, and they also had to have an idea of the kind of test they’d face at the end of the year. Most students were looking for tips in order to do the exam faster, as they’d have to sit such exam for 4 hours and a half, and answer about 180 questions from all different subjects – English, Portuguese, Match, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, Arts, Literature, Composition, and probably something else I may not remember right now.

Testing is definitely not the best way to assess learners, especially if it’s done alone, but it was definitely the only way that most teachers here have to have the time prepare their lessons, correct students’ work, prepare exams required by the school, and deal with problems that may come up in the classroom. Oh, and, obviously, teachers have to try to keep their lessons close to students’ reality if they want at least this bit of their job to be engaging, which means they’ve also got to keep abreast with what’s going on in the world. I have already asked this question before, and I was given lots of things to think about, but I still can’t figure out how a teacher with 720+ students can use only formative assessment throughout the year. What makes it even a bigger problem is when the school doesn’t buy into the idea and teachers are kept on a tight leash and have very little room for changing anything.

On the other hand, I don’t think the problem would be solved if teachers could abandon grades either. I don’t want to be that the-glass-is-half-empty guy, but there are, unfortunately, teachers out there who wouldn’t even read their students’ work. I’ve had teachers like that, even at university. Teachers who care only about their teaching and going to the classroom and vomiting the content. It doesn’t matter if students learned or not, what matters is that they’ve taught what they were supposed to do. These are teachers who see their job as finished when they finish lecturing. Just as there are teachers who prepare tests on the go without worrying about reliability, validity and authenticity, there are teachers who simply don’t care about what their students have learned.

The challenges with education, as I see them right now, can only be overcome if we start attracting the right people to do the job. If people who want to be teachers get plucked off the classroom because they want to start a family and can’t make enough money to pay their bills, and if schools accept people who see education just as something they do in-between jobs, it will never be taken seriously. I do believe there are lots and lots of people who have become teachers because they believe they can make a difference. This is the reason why I became a teacher in the first place and I know I’m not alone in this. However, for each true educator out there, I seem to meet 5 people who don’t believe in what they’re doing and can’t see how powerful they can be in transforming lives, pushing students to their limits, showing people what they are capable of doing and helping they live their full potential. Are true educators outnumbered? Even if we are, we’re not giving up, but it surely makes it a lot more difficult to get things done.

What should be done, then? Teachers were once respected by society, and this has got to happen again. Being a teacher should be something difficult, in the good sense of the word. Teachers need to be better prepared, they need to be given opportunities to keep learning, they need to be given freedom to innovate. Teachers are on the front line of any other profession out there, yet they are seen as unimportant in the long run. This means people themselves, despite saying education is the most important asset in a person’s life, don’t really believe in it. If education is indeed so important to everyone, why is it that teachers aren’t paid as much as doctors, lawyers, engineers, diplomats and politicians? If people truly believed their words when they say that education is the most important thing in a person’s life, they’d give a lot more on importance, value, and respect to those involved in education, and they’d demand better and better teachers. Is it a matter of changing, reforming, or even revolutionising education alone? Are we missing the big picture?

6 thoughts on “Some challenges in education (part 2) – Assessment

  1. Pingback: World Spinner
  2. I wonder if the trend of educators being devalued by society is due to the forced standards that we teach, the scripted curriculum, etc.? Educators end up looking like factory workers or babysitters. It is hard to think of a factory worker as a professional.

    1. I ask myself the same questions, but I think the answer is that people are usually afraid of changes in such a basic and important thing as education. We can always build a car differently, start developing a programme from scratch all over again, but when it comes to education, things are a tad harder, I suppose. When will we realise that changes are afoot, and they will happen sooner or later. We’ve got two options: 1) work now and start making things happen; 2) wait till the current system can no longer hold itself and we’ll all have to go through a period of chaos until we finally get things back on track.
      Unfortunately, it seems most governments are likely to go with option 2…

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