'Soft' Assessments?

A number of parents at our school have expressed concern that our assessment strategies are too 'soft' and others have said that our assessments are too 'subjective'. I take this to mean that because MIC does not favour examinations as a valid way of testing our children, that we are somehow molly-codelling our pupils with a sort of 'anything goes' attitude. This smacks of the misguided view points that took a (probably perverse) neo-Freudian view point that children should never experience failure of they are to grow up without severe personality traumas.

I'd like to dispel the myth that somehow assessments other than the examination hall are the 'soft' option by definition, or indeed that they are subjective. To be sure there are such approaches but by the same token 'examinations' are not the panacea to genuine 'authentic' assessments either. I wrote about this here

In fact I would like to argue that the assessments we do at MIC are rather more 'brusque' and 'brutal', so much so that there is bound to be the opposite concern from some parents when we tell them 'Frankly Ma'am and Sir, your child is failing abysmally at task X'. The difference appears to be that our assessments do not take place in the examination hall and this seems to be the point at which some parents, or parents making enquiries seem to think that we're not the real deal.

Designing the Task

Our assessments are very much the second item in mind when we design our curriculum. The first being the 'end goal' or 'bench mark' or 'criteria' that we are trying to teach towards. I've written about are ultimate end goals at MIC here. Once we've adequately described our end goals we have to consider how we will know that teaching staff and children have achieved those end goals. This is the task of the assessment, which has to be described in a way that has an operational task definition. That's a fancy way of saying that we have to be able to describe that assessment tasks in concrete actions that we can measure as objectively as possible. 

For instance, one of our end goals or bench marks is that children should be ‘safe’ in river currents whether it is wading through a river, or swimming in one (perhaps because one has fallen in). We absolutely know that a child can do this if they actually wade or swim in a river. Our assessment therefore is to wade/swim in a river with significant current. 

Now we have an objective, we teach our children the swimming survival skills that would enable them to actually do this 'authentic' assessment.  Compare this perhaps with a more traditional approach where children would have been taught at the black board how to wade and swim in the river. They would have been assessed by reading a question and writing the ‘answer’ on their exam paper. We think  you’ll agree that our assessments have more validity than the latter (see here for my entry on validity).

Teach to the Test

Of course since we know what the assessment is, we actually teach the skills required to pass that assessment. It makes perfect sense to 'teach to the test' in fact we'd have to have half a brain cell between us to not do this. Compare this to the wisdom that one is not supposed to 'teach to the test'. This does actually 'make sense' if the test is so narrow in focus and only partially tests the 'real' knowledge required. A child could rote learn the answer for a written examination test on how to 'swim across a river' and yet in the real situation would promptly drown.

The Truth and Nothing but the (Brutal) Truth

Since our school is so small and the class sizes are so small, it is hard not to think of the children as being almost 'one's own'. This is nothing to do with us being saints, rather we think we're rather normal - except of course we have small class sizes. It's much harder to have the same attachment to a class of 40 or 50 children! However, even if as individuals we were prone to letting our own children 'get away with it', the fact that they are not our own, means that we have a bit  more objectivity than perhaps parents and their own children. The upshot of this is that if anything we are more brusque and brutal in giving an honest assessment. We try of course not to give the feedback in a way that will put them off, but if they've failed, then we need to let them know that they have not achieved the benchmark. If they simply panic in a river crossing, or expend their energy too quickly, or wade across sideways and are subsequently knocked over - well then they've failed. No use dressing this up in any other way. From our perspective better to tell the child that they would probably drown in a river situation and that we need to work further on their skills, rather than tell them it was 'sort of ok' and they find out second before they actually drown that we were only trying to protect their feelings when we said that!

Like all these issues, how any assessment scheme is implemented is really the crux of whether it is 'soft', 'relevant' or 'authentic'. We believe that whilst our assessments do not conform to the traditional examination hall, they are actually totally relevant, and refreshingly honest.

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant