Sunday, June 07, 2020

A Big Assessment Question

Like a lot of people, I'm in a couple of facebook groups, including several aimed at academics.  There are a couple feminist groups, and pandemic response groups and so forth.  They're interesting, especially the one with most members in another country.  Today I was reading, and saw an acronym I didn't recognize, and asked.  And the person responded partially, which sort of helped, and then I asked for the rest, and I think they thought I am especially dense.

It was one of those assessment acronyms, the ones we all use at our different schools, some of which mean the same things even though we use different words, and others. . .  well, they don't.  And it really made me think about how thoroughly the language of assessment has taken over academics.  For me, it started right after grad school; I don't think I ever heard anything about assessment in grad school, but right after, BOOM!

A whole lot of academics (at all levels) have been working very hard on assessment stuff for a LONG time now.  And here's the question:

Have students gotten better educations as a result?

The one program around here that clearly points to a change is Introductory Underwater Basketweaving.  Where, before, we all used a hodgepodge of strategies and techniques to teach students the basics, the field has sort of redefined the basics to focus on a lot of terms to do with weave patterns and such.  And our entrance exams all focus on students recognizing weave patterns.  And, by golly, at the end of our course, when they're assessed, they all recognize and can name various weave patterns better than ever before.

But, you know, the baskets they weave don't look much different than they did 20 or so years ago when I first got here.  Some students learned good weaving strategies in high school, and they still use them with great success.  Some students need help preparing the reeds for weaving, and don't really get it, so they're baskets are a mess, but they can name the weave patterns. 

If the point really is that students can name weave patterns, then we've done a good job.  But if the point is that they can weave baskets underwater better, than we haven't.

That's how assessment feels: where we've defined something and focused on that, yes, students can often do that thing better.  But if what we really want students to learn is hard to measure, then are we actually doing a better job educating students?  Seriously, because every school I know of has poured tons of money and time and effort into doing massive assessment.  But by and large, students earning degrees seem no more or less educated than in previous years.  They learn different things, as they should, but overall, are they better critical thinkers?  Better able to understand the world?  Better able to communicate? 

Further: are they more humane?  better citizens? 

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