The purpose of classroom assessment: Do we know?

Mycelium is mass of fine, white interconnected fungal threads that grow through a substrate as they digest it. This process of digestion and absorption allows the fungus to spread as fruiting bodies appear atop the location where the mycelium lurks. The fruiting body is what you chop up to put on your pizza but it also holds spores which disperse and spread the fungus far and wide.

Assessment is an invisible, interconnected web of interactions that pervades education and digests learning as it grows. While it may hard to locate the mycelium, it is evidenced by the letter grades and accompanying percentages that appear, emerging from the subterranean assessment. Percentages and letter grades are the fruiting bodies that emerge out that allow the assessment to proliferate and spread. Assessment as mycelium is tangled throughout our institutions and begets assessments of the same sort, as spores produce fungus of the same sort.

Do we have a historical hangover from our greedy consumption of standardized tests in the name of fairness? Can we effectively remove the millions of innocuous threads that proliferate throughout the system? Can we recover a medium free of standardized assessment contamination (ones used to rank, sort, and compare)? Has the learning in education been consumed and ravaged by our obsessive and abusive love affair with data and the quantification of learning?

This weekend I had the opportunity to delve deeply into the varied functions, uses and abuses of assessment at all levels. #Mermforum2013 offered new insights and pushed my thinking around the purpose of classroom assessment.

While assessment at the federal, provincial or state level is beyond my direct control, I can as a classroom teacher clear the lens and clarify the purpose of assessment in the classroom.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment? Do we know?

If classroom assessment is in fact to inform learning, class assessment would in all instances:

1. Empower students to determine and locate their best talents and selves, as a compass helps us locate a desired location.

2. Act as a medium for growth and support as a tomato plant laden with fruit are supported with a tomato stake.

3. Focus on improving rather than proving. (Students would say: I know how to get better, I know where and how to get helpful and timely feedback related to my learning).

4. Help students understand themselves as people. Students would see learning as a human, integrated activity, connected wholly and fully to whom there are as a person.

5. Allow for feedfoward (not simply feedback) that would spotlight learning as a continuous ongoing process. There would be follow-up and follow through. We wouldn’t asses as an end point; we would access to begin, anew, again and again.

When we say assessment is for learning but are not consistent with this purpose…the mycellium…begins to grow. To say classroom assessment is in the service of learning then…we must, in every instance, say classroom assessment is NOT:

1. A way to generate percentages to serve the need of universities to filter students for entrance (whether it is in fact true teachers still service this belief).

2. A razor to make precise cuts to the .01% place to justify the awarding of monetary scholarships. If assessment is about learning, it cannot also be about this!

3. A method to rank students for awards such as top student and student of the year.

4. A way to control student behavior (get this done or I will take it in for marks).

5.  A means to justify low-level and non-learning or pseudo learning tasks (i.e. worksheets worth 125 points or bringing in a box of Kleenex).

6. As a way to generate a final letter grade or percent.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment?