Assessment as a Single Tool Among a Mixed Toolbox

I recall back to the TED talk from Ken Robinson (“How to Escape Education’s Death Valley“), how we do need some agreed upon notions of what is generally good or bad (cholesterol was the given example). This isn’t meant to exclude the need for individualization, but it does indicate the use for standardization at some level. Further, though a number for cholesterol may not be an accurate reflection of one’s overall health, we need to be able to represent and communicate status efficiently. Having a single number, letter, or symbol allows for broad but quick insights and high level comparisons. Having a cholesterol level also doesn’t exclude the ability for other tests or information to be considered.

My point with this is that assessment can have a scope of application, but it should be limited and taken into account with a myriad of other factors. It is simply one tool among a whole toolbox. It might be thought of as a hammer – useful with nails, but it plays a role aside saws, wood glue, levels, etc. If the focus of a worker is to always use a hammer, they’ll smash beams rather than saw them, nail rather than adhere, and further. Alfie Kohn in “The Case Against Grades” echoes the pitfalls of focusing on a single tool in terms of grading:

  • Students force grades rather than understanding out of learning
    • They become less interested in what the tools are actually making and instead center on just using the tools
  • Students do enough to get a grade rather than enough to learn
    • They finish the exterior of a house to make it appear done but leave the interior unfinished
  • Students don’t concentrate on or care what they’re meant to be learning
    • They forget the overall goal of what they’re meant to building

Assessment shouldn’t be thought of as the end goal. It isn’t the house being built, it is just one of the tools. Tests of various forms can be used to try to gauge a student, but it shouldn’t be considered a perfect representation of them. The results are a part of the holistic student, used with other facets to try to individualize education to best suit that student.

I’m reminded of how there are numerous learning theories, each which looks at the learner and their environment from a different perspective. Each one tries to capture and study a subset of all that a learner is or affects the learner. A behaviorist approach treats learners as black boxes with inputs and outputs. Social learning considers the societal and cultural contexts that gives meaning to what one does or come to understand. Different perspectives each have their use, and some can help explain situations that others cannot. Some or all of them can be used to help build a better and more complete learning experience.



4 thoughts on “Assessment as a Single Tool Among a Mixed Toolbox”

  1. This all sounds so elegant and reasonable! Of course assessment has a place as tool, but I heartily concur that it can’t be an end in itself. I especially like the way you juxtapose the behaviorist and social learning models, even giving the opposition of those two approaches a wry twist with this: “students force grades rather than understanding out of learning.”

  2. I love the metaphor you present. As an engineer, sometimes it is difficult for me to see tests and assessment as anything aside from tests and assessments, but this makes it very clear. Sadly, I feel that educators are showing up to the job site to build the house and everyone is forced to use the same hammer so we can see who is the better woodworker. Now instead of focusing on how I can be a better woodworker (creativity, maybe invent the nail gun, or a different type of nail that is more easily driven) I am focusing on driving nails faster than the next guy because the foreman is watching. I may have taken this metaphor a little too far, but I agree that assessments should not be used as an end, but as an approach to education.

    1. I like your expansion on the tool metaphor. The foreman forces everyone to use a hammer to see how they are with it, which has two problems. One, that someone might be able to do to the same job better but with a different tool (because someone doesn’t get a good score on a test, it doesn’t guarantee that will perform poorly on real work). And second, it can prevent non-hammerers from doing what they are good at (by focusing on a test score, you can’t see all the other meritable traits of a person).

  3. They say that when you get a new hammer, everything looks like a nail. Great analogy, the only problem is that this tool has been around for too long. Meaningful assessment is a great challenge in primary Ed and higher Ed. I would like to think that the right kind of assessment can inspire greater depth and understanding, but many are aware that it may take too much effort. I think a change in the culture of education is definitely needed

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