Having lived in the higher education world of measurement, assessment and evaluation for the past 30 years I have to say that I have had enough. There is no evidence that students live better lives or are more successful because of our obsession with assessment and evaluation. We cannot even tie true learning to our evaluation activities, though we often publish articles about the power of measurement.
Yes we can track numbers of students who are earning higher or lower grades. Yes we can track retention, persistence and graduation rates. Yes we can compare students across standardized tests, which are inherently biased. But no, we cannot actually say that students are happier, enjoying learning, able to apply information in real life situations, think better, create more, utilize more grit or resiliency or flexibility, or know how to deal with unique and new situations. We can tell if a student can solve a math problem, but we have no idea how this knowledge has changed the way they approach a challenge. And just for the record, geometry does not teach logic, even though that was what you were told.
Assessment experts will often tell us that we get what we measure, which is true. However there is an ugly secret hidden in this message. We measure what we know how to measure, and then get more of that, whatever that happens to be, and only that. If we measure attendance, we get better attendance. If we measure performance on tests, we get better performance on tests. If we assess writing skills, we will eventually see improved writing skills, none of which demonstrates depth of engagement or discernment of content.
In fact, rather than supporting student growth our assessments are teaching students at all levels what we value. Students learn that we value standardized tests, writing skills, GPAs, and correct answers. They know that there is some unsubstantiated notion of “performing at grade level” and whether they are above or below this mark. And, again for the record, that notion is to sort students and has nothing to do with brain development.
We internalize these lessons as we move into the work force, valuing title, office size and rank, rather than risk taking, creativity, flexibility, or cognitive courage. Or kindness. Or compassion. These are not attached to learning outcomes.
Think about all the ways we measure and assess our performance as humans on a regular basis. If you work out you probably know your weight, BMI, resting and target heart rates and percentile of fitness for you age. And I bet none of this actually inspires you to work out more.
I work with students who set a goal of a 4.0 GPA in college or graduate school. Full disclosure, I have never had a 4.0 GPA and I have a PhD. I work with parents who are worried about their children’s sports statistics while bragging about the value of team sports. They are all startled when I ask if anyone is enjoying the experience, or like who they are becoming. You guessed it, we do not measure that.
I am sure there are teachers everywhere who will disagree with me and want to show me their extensive assessments that connect each question on a test to a learning outcome, and rubrics that quantify writing skills. But I also know that we are all so much more than numbers and measures. Yes these are helpful, especially for doctors since they give a sense of our health. But they are not measures of who we are or what we can become. Our minds and brains and bodies are fluid and flexible and not locked into a certain percentile group. Here is a secret, I have been reject from two of the institutions that I actually earned degrees from. My numbers were not up to snuff, but I was, and I walked into their offices and told them so.