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Patrick Halbrook

How do our assessments shape our students?

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A recent article in Forbes described the difficulty with which students today struggle to think for themselves, placing the blame on a culture of standardized testing and multiple-choice assessments. Peter Greene writes:

Quote

...Much has been written about the effects of high stakes testing on education, but we should also pay attention to the nature of the tests themselves. They are, for the most part, standardized multiple-choice tests, and as such, they promote a particular view of the world.

Consider the difference between the two following questioning strategies:

Read this poem. What do you think the author's main idea is? Provide some evidence of how particular words and images are an important part of how the author makes their point. You'll be scored on how well you express and support your idea.

Read this poem. Here are four possible statements that could be the author's main idea, but only one is correct. Pick that one. Here are four quotes from the poem that might be the most important evidence of the author's main idea, but only one choice is correct. Pick that one.

The first strategy encourages the student to explore, to think, and to support her own ideas. Her task is to think and to express her thinking. The second strategy tells the student that the questions have already been settled and that somebody already knows the one correct answer. Her task is to figure out what that somebody believes the answer to be. The second is anti-thought. Even though a question like "what's the most important detail" is what many students would consider an opinion question, successfully answering means setting aside their own opinions, their own thoughts, and trying to predict the opinions and thoughts of the test writers...

https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2019/04/06/have-we-stolen-a-generations-independent-thought/

Whatever has gone wrong in education can be attributed to much more than the advent of standardized testing, but I think the author is definitely onto something here. The way we construct our assessments has short-term and long-term consequences: 1) in the short-term: it communicates to our students the outcome we expect from their lessons, and 2) in the long-term: it cumulatively trains students specific ways of thinking and encountering the world.

The difficulty, of course, is that the best assessments are typically the most difficult to grade. Even a computer can grade millions of multiple choice test without a problem, but it takes a skilled teacher to explain to a student how well he or she has expressed wisdom and virtue in a creative essay. It also takes a LOT more time, something teachers are typically running short on.

The multiple-choice worldview is pervasive. When my kids were preschool-age they'd sometimes watch a somewhat-lame-but-not-too-terribly-awful PBS show called Super Why! which was supposed to promote reading (the kids/superheroes would travel into fairy tales to learn lessons that would solve problems they were having). Then, as they try to figure out what to do next, the viewer was given a multiple choice question to answer about something that was happening. Grownups can't get away from it either. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (which I just discovered, after a quick Google search, is still on TV and in its 19th season) revolves around winning a million dollars by succeeding on...a high-stakes multiple-choice test.

As classical educators, how do we construct assessments for our students that help to train them to think? When are multiple-choice questions appropriate? (And how do those of us who teach a large number of students every day, or homeschooling moms with dozens of other responsibilities, find time to grade them?)

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Andrew Kern of the Circe Institute has a podcast called, Ask Andrew. He did two on assessment. One was on skills and one on ideas

One of the thoughts he shared was when we give a grade of "87" what do we even mean by it and what does the student perceive is meant? "You did pretty good!" "You didn't do good enough." "I studied so hard, and all I got was an 87." "I barely studied and I still got an 87." 

One of the things I've been frustrated with, as an old dog taking college classes, is the multiple choice quizzes. The way they are set up is to test if I've done the readings, not what I got out of them. So, if as a teacher there is something you want me to at least walk away with, THAT is what you include on the quiz - they are open book quizzes. That will force me to go and read that portion, or put together that idea with the question and the answer. But no, it will most likely be some obscure sentence I have to do a search for. What this tells me as a student is, "We don't trust you." You know what? Yes, sometimes I don't finish the readings. But if you give me a quiz that helps me at least glean the most important aspects, then we ALL win. I try to do better each time. I don't know that quizzes should be used as punishment or "Holy Spirit" conviction. :(

The sort of question that ought to be on quizzes is one of comprehension - which as was stated can be hard to write, hard to perceive the "proper answer" and then hard to grade. But WORTH IT! For everyone! 

The best forms of assessment I have appreciated, even if they were hard, was discussion with the teacher, in which he or she could tell we've interacted with the text, even if we didn't comprehend it! Questions indicate interaction as well.

Having to write on the readings. AFTER discussion, we were given a broad prompt and asked to write a short essay, or journal entries. Another one was after the one week's reading, the NEXT week we would have to submit questions on it and then answer each other's in a discussion. This forced me to "review" and think through the material. Tying a "unit" together. So units would be three weeks long. Again, forcing me to review, revising, and then create connections. 

In logic, at the end of the semester we had to find articles and put them in logical format. This was hard, but so worth it. We could really see how much we had learned. 

A form of assignment that has been helpful is having three ways in which I was exposed to the ideas of the content. In Bible class it was read the scripture, read a commentary, attend a lecture in which we had to take notes for turning in - this is a good form of accountability! This equipped me to complete the short essay answers for the midterm exams, which was NOT open book.

In Economics it was read an overview of the topics, a summary, and then watch a quick video that touched on the ideas, and THEN read the materials. But this is the class that gave the horrible quizzes. It was also the class that had discussion, questions, and then essays. 

Assessments are powerful psychological tools. If used improperly or at the wrong age, or the wrong stage of learning, they can either increase a student's negative self-image, or they can unrealistically puff a child up with pride. The student that says, "I barely studied and I still got an 87" has been deceived into thinking he or she is smarted than they are, and won't have to work hard to "get by" in life. I was the kid. And it has been really hard for me to be a diligent worker in many areas. 

Education ought to have some struggle to it, but it has to be the kind that builds up, not tears down. 

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