05 April 2016

Deliver us from tedious tests and rubrics

via hippoquotes
Assessment drives everything educational. So, not surprisingly, assessment is the biggest factor in terms of planning the use of tech in effective ways. This means that it's critical to ensure that we use a varied range of assessment strategies, which is where I find a surprising lack of options.

Why do so many teachers assume that only rubrics and tests are suitable for assessment? Sure they have their place but only within a suite of assessment strategies...

It feels to me like every educational reference I read or hear about, especially in tech circles, assumes that the only viable option has to be a rubric. I don't mean to denigrate any particular assessment tool—clearly rubrics and tests can be effective assessment tools, but when they dominate, they have an unfortunate tendency to diminish the importance and efficacy of all of the other tools that are available. It is depressingly common to me that in virtually any educational context (classroom, conference, online) when the conversation inevitably turns to assessment, the question seems to default to, 'what rubric or test will we use?' rather than any awareness that there are a plethora of other tools and strategies that could be just as effective if not more so.

Now I am concious that I may be overstating my point, after all, I have to confess I don't hate them, I hate the way they are so often assumed to be the only option worth considering. I loathe the majority I see that are poorly conceived and poorly written. They are often bloated verbose attempts at teasing out questionable differences in attainment, many that seem to be based on the assumptions that just adjusting superlatives is sufficient, like well, very well, independently, with assistance...

Of course I'm not the only one who has a problem with rubrics:

The most famous of whom is probably Alfie Kohn who speaks to the false sense of objectivity and how rubrics have misled many.

And I really like Joe Bower's take on Rubrics, in 'The Folly of Rubrics and Grades'

"Grades and rubrics are a solution in search of a problem that will further destroy learning for its own sake.  
It’s been five years since I used a rubric. I simply don’t need them, nor do my students.
Rather than spending time asking how can we grade better, we really need to be asking why are we grading. And then we need to stop talking about grading altogether and focus our real efforts on real learning."

Most of the rubrics I've seen could be easily replaced by a continuum, at least then all you would need to is define the extremes, but and I guess this is a statement about teaching as a profession, far too many teachers use the term 'rubric' as if it is synonymous with 'assessment tool'.

Rubrics are one of many ways to assess learning, and they are used far too often. Used well a rubric can be a powerful assessment tool, but in my experience I rarely see them used well, and I often see them used inappropriately.  So, yes, they have their place but only within a suite of assessment strategies...

Here's one way to use a rubric well, by making it more student centred' this way the teacher defines a central standard (eg a level 3 on a 5 point scale) and then leaves the students to define and justify the level they feel there work sits in comparison to that, (above or below, or in the middle) with examples.

There are other ways to assess... 

Next time you're assessing, at least consider some alternatives to rubrics. Now before someone accuses this of being more new fangled thinking, here's some out of the Ark:

But one of my favourite summaries of assessment strategies and tools, is this grid from the PYP:

Unfortunately the PYP is allergic to the term 'tests' and (somewhat simplistically in my opinion) assume that all tests can be summarised as 'checklists'. Still, if more educators made more effort to tick all the elements in the above diagram in one year everyone would be a winner. I've always found this matrix from the PYP to be particularly useful to illustrate this, although you may be surprised by the omission of tests from this grid, I believe they (somewhat disparagingly?) categorise these as 'check lists':

Do less, but do it better.

Now of course it's highly possible that teachers are unaware of the wider range of assessment tools they use effectively almost everyday, such as the ad hoc/informal conversations (conferences in the jargon) with students every day, to spirited class debates (not lectures) that utlise skilful Socratic strategies, which are in and of themselves valid assessment tools. The problem is that I think these are seen as somehow inferior to a "proper" test/rubric. All this does is create a lose/lose scenario for the teacher and the student. Rather than focusing on tests and rubrics, wouldn't it be better for everyone if we were to embrace a much wider tool kit when it comes to assessment? To see them all as valid/powerful, maybe that conversation/conference was so effective that adding a rubric or a test is not only unnecessary but possibly even counter productive?

I think if you had asked most teachers why it is that they rely so strongly upon rubrics and tests as opposed to all of the other powerful forms of assessment, I think you would find that they would point to one sad fact; they feel they need paper with marks on, that they can attach a grade to, so they can point to it as being hard evidence of their assessment judgement. While there is clearly a place for this kind of formal (usually summative) judgement, in my experience it is far too frequent and far too common. Teachers could do themselves a favour and do their students a favour by focusing on the goal of learning rather than the need to have a hard artefact to present evidence of every stage of progress.

What if instead we were to focus on the goal, that is, as long as the assessment tools you use allow you to provide effective individual feedback to the student and enables them to progress in their learning point where they are improving compare to their previous level of competence (ipsative assessment), then the goal has been achieved! So why not work a little smarter and use a range of assessment tools that are a far more varied. In so doing you create a classroom environment that is more dynamic, and far more effective for both the teacher and the student.

So what does this have to do with edtech?

From my perspective, a classroom that exploits a wide range of assessment tools is a much richer environment within which to be able to integrate digital tools that can truly enhance and transform the way teachers teach and the way the students learn, and demonstrate the extent to which they have mastered the skills, knowledge and understanding that is truly the point, not just in ways that can be measured quantitatively on another test or a rubric. You don't have to look much further than an early childhood classroom to see this in action. Why? One thing these very young students can't do is demonstrate their understanding via tests or rubrics, which opens up a whole range of extremely rich engaging ways of demonstrating skills knowledge and understanding that would benefit many students that are considerably older, 

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