Resolute and unyielding assessment

Assessment. It’s a crazy bad word for some folks. I’ve never liked it. I always had the worst multiple-choice/bubble-test anxiety. Essay exams–not a quiver or a shiver–I could always write my way to success. Even though I always worried about making errors, there’s nothing as alien to my thinking than a fill-in-the-bubble test. I had nightmares about bubbles chasing me and dull #2 pencils trying to stab me, or rub me out with their evil pink erasers, before my SAT and GRE exams. Waking up in the middle of the night, I’d be breathless with worry over: T or F, all of the above, none of the above, or if you have to form three committee of three attorneys each from lawyers A-M, with the following conditions, A cannot serve with B, C must serve with I, J and E must also not serve on the same committee because J is a meanie, K had an affair with D’s wife, so they can’t serve together, and now you must decide what your committees will look like in the next two minutes or your hopes for a successful career in any field are over. Go.

A. aglkheo;ireo;ith

B. woeirh*thipaosidfn

C. ago~iehnroiha&

D. Dqtr..oiy9;kbjqr

E. None of the above–you should go home now; stop and fill out an application at the convenience store, why don’t you?

That is exactly what those kinds of questions look like to me. Even taking a simple English placement test this week (to assess the test), I had test anxiety and had to re-read sentences over and over again. I wrote WTH? in the margin by question 7; then I wanted to quit by question 9. It’s like I am so very deeply narrative-enabled but without context, I feel like I’m holding ice cream in my hands when deciphering non-contextualized language. There’s no good result from either endeavor. I passed by 1 point. Previously, I’d taken the test and failed by 10 points. And I’m an ENGLISH professor.

Being judged–that’s partly what it’s about for me. Being judged with no chance of mitigation. (Well, that and I’m not sure I have a logic in my genes.)

JUDEGMENT. Oh man. That gives me the heebie-jeebies just writing it.

I started thinking about pressure today, the kind that surrounds assessment in education, but what got me started was that I learned some people in the world, in some jobs, are not allowed to make mistakes. Zero mistakes. If mistakes are made, people are punished and/or people die. Those are extreme jobs. Mine is not one of them. And thank goodness for that.

I admire the folks who take on the jobs with that kind of pressure–I’m just saying I’d crumble like week-old cake the first time someone said, “Here is your task. You may not fail. Ever. Not get out there and have some fun.” In the name of all that’s holy, how does anyone ever do that kind of work? Perhaps my reaction stems from my lack of training to do that sort of thing. Or perhaps I’m just not ever going to be able to be that kind of person. I function more on this model: prewriting, drafting, planning, drafting more, revising, talking, changing my mind, researching new things, talking more, back to planning, talking again, revising, proofreading, change one or two last things… and it’s final (not finished, just final).

I am a teacher and know learning from mistakes is what education is all about. In fact, I learn from my mistakes in a rather painful and ponderous manner, so even those who are slow to learn (as I am–27 seven years old before I learned how to use a semi-colon, 38 when I finally understood irony). As a professional, I could never work under zero tolerance conditions. I teach as I learn, I learn as I teach: my teaching is big and messy and unclear and exciting and bold and warm and sweet and full of promise. AND full of mistakes.

Perhaps my abject fear of zero tolerance in assessment is why I am so flexible in my teaching/grading/assessments and so into celebrating the wins. Long-term learning can never be assessed–only immediate knowledge acquisition and application can be. The long-term learning that infuses life-long learning, that is the thing that changes a life, that enriches a life, that enables a life to be led with joy in inquiry, that supports a quest that never ends and runs through all parts of a human existence–all that is what I am teaching. That is all about why I teach. I know that happens. I also know I hardly get to see that, so I do what I can to facilitate the environment that allows such growth–for those who will seek it out.

See what I mean about not being able to assess that? I guess I could check in with my students in 20 years and assign grades then. In lieu of that plan, I must grade in the short-term.

How do I assess learning then? Through writing. Does a student write or not? If a student writes, and the writing makes sense or shows engagement, that’s a grand thing. If not, then I’ll know that, too. Do they talk to others? Do they nurture their peers as writers, learners, editors? Are they learning to be a community, a commons, a collective? Or not? I can usually tell pretty quickly who’s in and who’s not. Do they synthesis rather than summarize? Do they break out of their mold and create light-bulb moments for themselves? All that can be seen in their writing, if they are writing a lot, and if they care about what they are doing.

Therefore: I don’t like tests in my classes anymore. I haven’t banned them from my life completely. I would never ban doctoral exams… I think that sort of depth of knowledge needs pressurization to form. I wouldn’t want to see essay exams done away with–writing on-demand is good for the soul. Tests in freshman comp: fine thing. Freshman may need to have some tests while they transition to becoming thinking beings and while they learn to write and write to learn.

It may be that some kinds of standardized tests assess a student’s ability to take tests or understand standardized test-taking strategies (if you are wondering, you could take a course on how to pass nearly any standardized text in existence and do better with that help than without it). Assessing with writing, though, that’s another country altogether–a better country where there is no litter, no spitting, no gum on the sidewalk, no mugging, no bad driving, etc.

Writing shows thinking. I want to know students are thinking, not memorizing a lot of facts. I like to see thinking and lots of it. I also like to hear it–I like when students talk to each other–and sometimes that takes time to allow, more time than I’m always comfortable giving, but I give it because the idea of knowing one another (though we may not love each other a lot) is a vital component of collaborative learning. This is one of the reasons I like blogging–students who are reluctant to talk in front of others can show their stuff online in safe ways, admitting their worry or fear, or getting happy about some new thing they discovered about what they are doing. Others can comment, commiserate, or celebrate. (And when a total stranger drops in to comment–the surprise and joy is lovely to witness.)

Community is formed. THAT is sometimes more important than the content. Content can be forgotten and then looked up. Memories of working together, learning from one another, of becoming a commons–that stuff lasts a life-time and invigorates every person who embraces such an experience. That’s the stuff legends are made of, the stuff that molds regular humans into superlearners, superteachers, superthinkers. And what do some of the people do who have that kind of educational experience and have their foundations shaken? They become writing teachers.

No matter what I believe, assessment will come for each of us like the Grim Reaper, whether we are ready for it or not. Dismissing it as a whole is silly (though I verge on the silly). I suggest like any system, protocol, process, procedure, or operation, we measure widely and vastly and with grace. I can’t see dumping every assessment in favor of written responses (egads, we’d be reading all the time), but I think the reasons we assess and what we hope the results will engender need to be some issues we consider more carefully when we create resolute and unyielding* assessment events.

*Of course, “resolute and unyielding” is a description of Jack Sparrow’s need to stay near land in the second of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. It’s funny how I was wondering about assessment, thinking about high pressure/high stakes jobs, and watching a movie on pirates while I was preparing for my pedagogy of basic writing class that is pirate-themed… and letting my mind wander around all that in order to learn or think or figure out what I wanted to say here.

I sail on, ever on, collecting and connecting. Just the sort of thing that couldn’t be assessed with a bubble test.


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