Assessment is (often) neither good nor true.

If you’ve been reading my blog over the past years, you’ll know that I have a lot of time for thinking about assessment systems that encourage and develop students, with an emphasis on intrinsic motivation. I’m strongly influenced by the work of Alfie Kohn, unsurprisingly given I’ve already shown my hand on Focault! But there are many other writers who are… reassessing assessment: why we do it, why we think we are doing it, how we do it, what actually happens and what we achieve.

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In my framing, I want assessment to be as all other aspects of education: aesthetically satisfying, leading to good outcomes and being clear and what it is and what it is not. Beautiful. Good. True. There are some better and worse assessment approaches out there and there are many papers discussing this.  One of these that I have found really useful is Rapaport’s paper on a simplified assessment process for consistent, fair and efficient grading. Although I disagree with some aspects, I consider it to be both good, as it is designed to clearly address a certain problem to achieve good outcomes, and it is true, because it is very honest about providing guidance to the student as to how well they have met the challenge. It is also highly illustrative and honest in representing the struggle of the author in dealing with the collision of novel and traditional assessment systems. However, further discussion of Rapaport is for the near future. Let me start by demonstrating how broken things often are in assessment, by taking you through a hypothetical situation.

Thought Experiment 1

Two students, A and B, are taking the same course. There are a number of assignments in the course and two exams. A and B, by sheer luck, end up doing no overlapping work. They complete different assignments to each other, half each and achieve the same (cumulative bare pass overall) marks. They then manage to score bare pass marks in both exams, but one answers only the even questions and only answers the odd. (And, yes, there are an even number of questions.) Because of the way the assessment was constructed, they have managed to avoid any common answers in the same area of course knowledge. Yet, both end up scoring 50%, a passing grade in the Australian system.

Which of these students has the correct half of the knowledge?

I had planned to build up to Rapaport but, if you’re reading the blog comments, he’s already been mentioned so I’ll summarise his 2011 paper before I get to my main point. In 2011, William J. Rapaport, SUNY Buffalo, published a paper entitled “A Triage Theory of Grading: The Good, The Bad and the Middling.” in Teaching Philosophy. This paper summarised a number of thoughtful and important authors, among them Perry, Wolff, and Kohn. Rapaport starts by asking why we grade, moving through Wolff’s taxonomic classification of assessment into criticism, evaluation, and ranking. Students are trained, by our world and our education systems to treat grades as a measure of progress and, in many ways, a proxy for knowledge. But this brings us into conflict with Perry’s developmental stages, where students start with a deep need for authority and the safety of a single right answer. It is only when students are capable of understanding that there are, in many cases, multiple right answers that we can expect them to understand that grades can have multiple meanings. As Rapaport notes, grades are inherently dual: a representative symbol attached to a quality measure and then, in his words, “ethical and aesthetic values are attached” (emphasis mine.) In other words, a B is a measure of progress (not quite there) that also has a value of being … second-tier if an A is our measure of excellence. A is not A, as it must be contextualised. Sorry, Ayn.

When we start to examine why we are grading, Kohn tells us that the carrot and stick is never as effective as the motivation that someone has intrinsically. So we look to Wolff: are we critiquing for feedback, are we evaluating learning, or are we providing handy value measures for sorting our product for some consumer or market? Returning to my thought experiment above, we cannot provide feedback on assignments that students don’t do, our evaluation of learning says that both students are acceptable for complementary knowledge, and our students cannot be discerned from their graded rank, despite the fact that they have nothing in common!

Yes, it’s an artificial example but, without attention to the design of our courses and in particular the design of our assessment, it is entirely possible to achieve this result to some degree. This is where I wish to refer to Rapaport as an example of thoughtful design, with a clear assessment goal in mind. To step away from measures that provide an (effectively) arbitrary distinction, Rapaport proposes a tiered system for grading that simplifies the overall system with an emphasis on identifying whether a piece of assessment work is demonstrating clear knowledge, a partial solution, an incorrect solution or no work at all.

This, for me, is an example of assessment that is pretty close to true. The difference between a 74 and a 75 is, in most cases, not very defensible (after Haladyna) unless you are applying some kind of ‘quality gate’ that really reduces a percentile scale to, at most, 13 different outcomes. Rapaport’s argument is that we can reduce this further and this will reduce grade clawing, identify clear levels of achieve and reduce marking load on the assessor. That last point is important. A system that buries the marker under load is not sustainable. It cannot be beautiful.

There are issues in taking this approach and turning it back into the grades that our institutions generally require. Rapaport is very open about the difficulties that he has turning his triage system into an acceptable letter grade and it’s worth reading the paper to see that discussion alone, because it quite clearly shows what

Rapaport’s scheme clearly defines which of Wolff’s criteria he wishes his assessment to achieve. The scheme, for individual assessments, is no good for ranking (although we can fashion a ranking from it) but it is good to identify weak areas of knowledge (as transmitted or received) for evaluation of progress and also for providing elementary critique. It says what it is and it pretty much does it. It sets out to achieve a clear goal.

The paper ends with a summary of the key points of Haladyna’s 1999 book “A Complete Guide to Student Grading”, which brings all of this together.

Haladyna says that “Before we assign a grade to any students, we need:

  1. an idea about what a grade means,
  2. an understanding of the purposes of grading,
  3. a set of personal beliefs and proven principles that we will use in teaching

    and grading,

  4. a set of criteria on which the grade is based, and, finally,
  5. a grading method,which is a set of procedures that we consistently follow

    in arriving at each student’s grade. (Haladyna 1999: ix)

There is no doubt that Rapaport’s scheme meets all of these criteria and, yet, for me, we have not yet gone far enough in search of the most beautiful, most good and most true extent that we can take this idea. Is point 3, which could be summarised as aesthetics not enough for me? Apparently not.

Tomorrow I will return to Rapaport to discuss those aspects I disagree with and, later on, discuss both an even more trimmed-down model and some more controversial aspects.


3 Comments on “Assessment is (often) neither good nor true.”

  1. […] Assessment is (often) neither good nor true. → […]

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  2. […] example, if we look at Rapaport’s triage approach as a way to evaluate student interaction with assignments, we can then design our learning […]

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  3. […] of my problem with assessment is, taking into account all of the roles that it can take. In an earlier post, I discussed Wolff’s classification of assessment tasks into criticism, evaluation and […]

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