The Dilemma of Assessment

It seems many scholars nowadays have problems with the assessment of education. Their biggest concern is that present evaluating system cannot effectively measure students’ real knowledge or abilities, and thus cannot effectively encourage them to learn.

Riley questioned the “Outcomes-Based Education” and an “evidence-based” philosophy in engineering education and criticized ABET’s (Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology) recent revision of its criteria. She criticized the elimination of some broader consideration of a student’s ability such as political consciousness and professional ethics. She argued that such criteria are indeed useful and their elimination is ascribed to a rationale that these outcomes are not assessable.

Kohn, on the other hand, criticizes present grading system. According to him, grading at least has three shortcomings: it reduces students’ interests to learn, it makes students lazier by encouraging the easiest tasks, and it harms students’ quality of thinking.

Lombardi also indicates that present assessing system could make students passive information receivers who only learn the stuff that would be tested.

While all these researchers have their insights, I would add that the situations they described are largely a Western concern. In the developed world, educational resources are relatively abundant and it is not a dream for the majority to receive decent education, even college education. This is simply a luxury that most developing countries are still dreaming of. The scarcity of education resources causes a series problems, one of which is the corruption of education. In many developing countries students would know that going to a good school often means bribery in one form or another. In the end, the kids from better off families tend to enjoy better education based upon unfair competition. In this situation, objectified and standardized examinations are whole-heartedly embraced by the vast majority, because only such exams can guarantee relatively fair competition. The more “assessable” the exams are, the fairer. These education assessments very much welcome the “Outcomes-Based Education”.

Of course, the problem the third world is facing is not the reason to downplay the problem in the first world. It just provides a different view to look at the assessment of education.

The Drive to Learn

To different degrees, all these week’s readings deal with the issue of students’ low efficiency of learning. In Wesch’s words, education has lost “significance” to students. Other authors also expressed similar concerns of the inefficiency of present education. While I admit this observation has its insight, I would argue that this issue might have been over-exaggerated due to one reason or another.

I think part of the reason that contemporary education is not as efficient as it is expected to be actually arises from the question itself. Modern education’s assumption is based upon this fundamental assumption: all children should be educated. While this assumption has been taken for granted, it was not true in the past. From ancient time to very recent centuries, most adult human beings on our planet were simply illiterate, or close to illiterate. The vast majority of kids would not have the concept of going to schools at all. Keep in mind that the first major book was only printed in Europe as late as 1455. Education in the past was indeed a high privilege of the very well off, if not the very top members of human societies. In this situation, people would pursue education only if they not only had the resources, but also possessed an absolutely strong drive to learn. It is not hard to imagine students in the past would make every effort to absorb knowledge. Curiosity and interest were probably not a relevant concern at all. Simply put it, kids in the past drove themselves to learn.

In recent centuries, however, the tide was reversed. Education has stopped being a privilege; instead, it is assumed to be a basic human right and education has become an industry. A class is like an assembly line and teachers of different subjects are workers standing at different spots. Students are the products. The more students a class has, the less attention each of them can receive, given the number of teachers fixed. Ken Robinson in his video mentioned the importance of individualized education and appreciated the education of Finland. It is easier said than done. With their oil money from the sea and their small populations, of course it is easy for those Northern European countries to hire enough teachers to perform “individualized” education for their kids. This is hardly practical for countries with large populations like America, not mentioning those crowded countries like China.

That being said, a growing number of students going to school should not be the excuse to downplay the quality of education itself. After all, education quality is part of living quality in a general sense. If human beings’ general living conditions are improved in history, there is no reason to leave education behind. If you can make students attracted, why bore them?