Problematic Uses of Assessment

The Assessment Trap, Part 2: Problematic Uses of Assessment

In my previous post, I listed four legitimate uses of assessment, which make it a key part of instruction. But there are other uses of assessment which I find problematic. Here they are.

1. Assigning grades.

We need to give grades to “let students know where they stand”, to enter them into transcripts, and of course, to rank students. Grades are the basic currency of education in most schools, and assessment is how we figure out grades.

I am uncomfortable with comparing students to each other, as this sort of pressure can interfere with learning, and given different backgrounds and experiences it is intrinsically unfair. Some make the claim that grades are about standards, not comparison, but I don’t buy it, and neither do students, parents, or college admissions officers. Everyone knows grades are about ranking students, no matter what efforts are made to disguise this obvious fact. (I will return to this in my next post.)

2. Justifying the grades.

Because grades are so important to students’ status and opportunities, they are contentious. If a student, parent, or administrator wants to challenge us, or if we ourselves are unsure, we need solid evidence that the grade was assigned fairly. Thus we need some sort of objective-seeming way to justify the grade. From a certain point of view, this is the main purpose of assessment. It provides cover for the teacher and the school if and when grades are questioned, and it attempts to address our concerns about fairness.

3. Preparing students for future assessments.

I am not joking. “We have to do multiple choice tests to prepare you for such-and-such a standardized test.” “You have to learn to work under time pressure, because that’s what you’ll have to do in college.” (Or high school, or middle school.) And so on.

There’s a bit of truth to this, of course, but only a bit. Giving assessment as the reason for assessment fails to answer any fundamental questions.

4. Manipulating student motivation.

Note that the above three uses of assessment have nothing to do with student learning. Many educators try to balance that by emphasizing assessments as tools for manipulating student motivation. Since not all students are enthusiastic about carrying out teacher directives or pursuing education for its own sake, it is widely believed that grades (along with the points or rubrics that lead to the grades) are the key tool in motivating students to do schoolwork. Unfortunately, this does not work as well as is widely believed. In fact, grades, points, and rubrics shift students’ attention away from the subject matter, towards “how they are doing” which in fact undermines their intellectual or emotional engagement with the work. Assessment anxiety can sour a student’s entire relationship to the subject matter.

In the world we live in, there is no easy way to escape these problematic uses of assessment, but they should not dominate our thinking. Far from supporting learning, an emphasis on grades, points, and rubrics in fact undermines both motivation and achievement. I will return to this in future posts. Next up: The Meaning of Grades.


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