Virtues and Merits in the Educational Setting
Whether we like it or not, it is a fact of life in general, not just the realm of education, that human beings are assessed on a daily basis. Our performance in life is judges by a panel of our peers, and how we perform is tied to the income that we make and the lifestyle that we are able to live. Competition is as inherent a factor of our existence as is our need to breathe the air and consume nutrients to survive. While it is tempting to hold on to a utopian belief that, without assessments, the world would be a better place, one look at a world of “true” equality such as is presented it Kurt Vonnegut’s (1961) pivotal short story Harrison Bergeron:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General (Vonnegut, 1).
These words are enough to set even the most recalcitrant mind to pondering whether, in fact, Nietzsche might have been right in his ideas about the impossibility of true equality, and it is enough to make even the most reluctant cynic a believer in the ultimate dystopia that would be created by a forced equalizing of all humanity. However, as we look towards a future in which individuality and difference are accepted as the norm, and we reach past the bounds of our preconceived educational hegemony, we must strive to find more diverse ways to assess learning as defined in the academic setting.
Academic assessment needs to be carried out in such a way that the end result of that assessment is a picture of the student as a whole: what he or she has learned, as well as his or her competencies. No two students are alike. The definition of differentiation provides the key to understanding not only the need for a variety of teaching methods, but also for assessments that match those methods:
To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process (Hall 2007, p 37).
As a result assessments must be malleable enough to meet the needs of each student. For this reason, rubrics are a useful tool in a diversified classroom. They can be easily adapted to match the needs of a variety of different forms of assessment from hands-on projects to written papers and oral reports. Standards are set for each level or “score” within the rubric, and it becomes the student’s responsibility to strive to meet these standards. The fact that these levels of achievement can also be easily tied to state standards is a key factor in the usefulness of rubrics as an ideal form of assessment.
Many experts as well as members of the general public have questioned the need for assessment. However, without some basis to identify skill level, we would be forced into a situation that can lead only to the absolute downfall of society as we know it. We would not want to go to the hospital for surgery only to find that the “doctor” assigned to our case had no mastery of the medical arts. Therefore, the purpose for assessment is to validate not only the skills being taught in the classroom but also the degree to which an individual student has mastered those skills and his or her preparedness to use that knowledge to progress to the next level educationally or to perform in a real-world setting.
To say that one form of assessment is better than another is also a tempting proposition. Proponents of the portfolio system, for example, are quick to argue its merits over the standardized test. However, the reality of the situation is that the form of assessment must be uniquely tied to the concept or skill being measured. Therefore, it would be wrong to state that one form is better than another. Just like the students in our classrooms, they are merely different and uniquely suited to specific applications.
That being said, standardized tests, while they do have their good points in that they are a good way to assess a large body of knowledge quickly, should not be utilized as a primary tool for assessment of learning and are relied upon far too heavily in the modern academic setting. In his article Measuring What Matters Least, Johnathan Pollard (2007) notes that:
Many years ago, tests were administered mostly to decide placement of students in their classes, or to ascertain which students needed additional help. Today, test scores are quoted by newspapers; they are used as the primary criteria for judging the success or failure of students, teachers, and school ( 1).
The key statement made by Pollard is the fact that these tests are now the main criteria used to determine a student’s merit. These tests fail to take into account the fact that learning styles vary from one student to another, and some students who do not perform well of these types of tests may be academically, artistically or vocationally brilliant in their chosen field.
Assessment matters, but it is in the way that assessment is chosen that we can make a difference as educators. Matching the needs of the student to the needs of society as a whole, we can create a cohesive whole that leads towards a new multi-cultural educational hegemony.
Hall, T. (2005) Differentiated Instruction New York: Columbia University Press.
New York State Education Department: English Language Arts Core Curriculum (2005).
Retrieved June 14, 2007 from http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/ciai/ela/elacore.htm.
Pollard, J. (2007) Measuring What Matters Least. Retrieved June 27, 2007 from
Vonnegut, K. (1961) Harrison Bergeron New York:” Dell Publishing.