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Let’s really talk about assessment

picture of highway ramp with white line on the left and yellow line on the rightThis is the picture of an off-ramp taken from the rear window, and cropped out of the picture is a car that has been totaled.  A car in which a group of teens were killed when they got on the highway going the wrong way. If you were to get on an offramp, going the wrong way, how would you know? The clue is the yellow line on the right side and white line on the left. The white line should always be on the right-hand side, and the yellow on the left. I’ve found that most people don’t know this, and yet that piece of knowledge can be a matter of life and death.

If this piece of information is critical, then shouldn’t it be taught in driver education? And, if it is taught in driver education should we make sure it is assessed? A common method of assessment is the use of quizzes constructed of random questions selected from a larger test bank. This type of assessment does not guarantee that the student will be assessed on critical information. If the drivers test consisted of a subset of random questions selected from a test bank, students may or may not get a question on white lines. Should they? And, if so, should it matter if they get it correct?

These are the kinds of things we should consider when constructing assessment. What is it that students need to have mastered in a course in order to pass? Do we directly assess it, and do we insure students are not passed along until they actually master it? If a course does not have specific competencies that a student needs to master, as some individuals will claim about their course, then why are we asking students to take it? There must be some skill or knowledge, at some level of mastery (even if it is on the beginner level) that we want students to get from that course.

Today, I came across a wonderful document on CBE posted on the Merrimack High School web site:


Why use competencies: 90%takeoff, 86%turbulence, 83% panel knowledge, 50% landing. Still passing, but would you want to get on the plane?

I took a screenshot of one of the slides, because I think it illustrates an important point about the weights we assign to various

assessments. I’ve seen a good many rubrics, and far too many of them don’t weigh the most important items properly. I’ve seen a good many category weights that allow students to completely fail the final exam and still pass the course–sometimes with a grade as high as an B.

A good part of the problem education now faces is due to the way we assess education, the way we credential it as well, and maybe even the way we think about it.  Much  more thought needs to go into what we assess, how we assess it, and how much weight we put on those assessments.

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