How can assessments be reframed to benefit education?

assessment-BoLAs a culture, we like to measure things.

Mobile computing has ushered in the age of the Quantified Self. How many of us got a Fitbit for Christmas this year or use Track My Run to compare our workouts with Facebook Friends? Measuring things helps us see how we stack up. It can quell (or inflame) insecurities. It allows us to view the world as a place that has an underlying order governed by consistent rules.

In the education world, standardized testing is the most powerful example of our fixation on metrics. We determine rankings for students, schools, and individual teachers that falsely imply precision in measurement and linearity in learning.

This is assessment at its worst.

(Next page: Assessment at its best)

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. If we reframe the purpose of assessment as a tool to support learning, the natural outcome would be learning improvements instead of denigrated schools, students, and teachers.

So what does more formative assessment look like, and what types of digital tools can help us get there?

As schools begin to relax mobile device policies and lean toward BYOD programs, many tools have emerged in recent years that allow teachers to determine what students have mastered a concept and which ones need more practice. Tools such as Poll Anywhere enable instructors to assess mid-lesson whether the majority of the class is ready to move on or if a concept needs to be retaught.

Outside the classroom, there are many other tools that help teachers gauge student understanding. Teachers using the math tutorial site Aleks can see where skill gaps exist using data such as quiz results and time spent on individual problems. Similarly, apps like the social eReader Subtext give language arts teachers insight into how well their students are reading an eBook by tracking how many words a student looks up in the integrated dictionary and tracking the average time a student spends reading a page.

These types of tools work great for assessing student understanding of the academic content of a course. But what about student skills and habits of mind such as creativity, collaboration, persistence, and engagement? Many people say it is traits such as these that are most closely correlated to student success, so shouldn’t we be assessing student growth in these areas too?

I believe that we should, but with the understanding that they are impossible to quantify. Assessments of these habits of mind will have to look very different than the spreadsheet of skill mastery that a teacher can download from Aleks. This type of assessment is more narrative in nature and incorporates artifacts to illustrate the student’s use of various habits of mind.

The iPad video camera can be a powerful tool used to capture many of these habits and skills. If you assess a student on his group work, it might be helpful to show him examples of himself actually doing group work–complete with examples of helpful or counter-productive behavior.

Of course, the best example of using artifacts to illustrate progress is a student-designed portfolio. Not only can portfolios such as PortfolioGen, Google Sites, and Evernote show evidence of learning course content, but often, they can illustrate a student’s progress in objectives such as persistence, grit, and creativity.

It’s also worth noting the value in formative assessment coming from sources other than the teacher. Tools like Voicethread and Google Doc Comments allow classmates to offer feedback to one another. This broadening of the feedback can add credibility to assessment on projects where the feedback tends to be subjective.

What is important here is that this information isn’t designed to formulate a grade on a report card. It lets the teacher differentiate activities, provide support, assign extra practice, and select appropriate reading for students.

Many of us will find this type of assessment messy and difficult. We crave objective metrics that tell us definitively whether a student has mastered a skill. The problem is that the things that should matter the most to us in student learning are impossible to quantify. The notion that we could somehow measure the fact that Sally is five points more creative than Alan or that Charles is half a point more gritty than Tom is ridiculous. We also have to realize that when we put metrics on many of these student traits, they often feel forced and artificial, and such metrics end up destroying the thing that they are trying to foster.

Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for over 20 years. He is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School and can be reached at @shawt, +TrevorShaw, and shawt@d-e.org.