Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Myth of Transforming Curriculum through Fancy Assessment Tools: A Rant in One Part

File this one solidly in the RANT category.
Enough so that I am taking a break from the “Form Follows Function” blog to do so.

My second grader got her report card yesterday. Improvements in a number of categories. A letter grade drop in math. The culprit? math-facts speed tests. She gets them right, but not enough of them in two minutes. The solution: electronic flashcard program for the tablet...Start memorizing, my dear. But while that is frustrating and not uncommon, it is not enough to warrant a rant.

I was reading through’s list of “Readers’ top ed-tech picks for 2012 and noticed a disturbing trend that leaves me cold. mixed in with some excellent choices (Google Apps for Education) and some interesting tools that warrant further investigation (PTC Wizard - online scheduling for parent teacher conferences) and a few jokes awaiting a punchline (need a tablet less useful than a Kindle Fire? buy Kineo) is a growing number of websites and software packages that claim to teach through assessment. They often use glowing buzzwords like value-add and gap-identification and talk about the seamless process of identifying and challenging students with problems as they are ready. The most complicated of these packages promise to aggregate data for use in teacher assessment so that schools and districts can engage in long-range planning.

(cue the music)

As teachers and professionals, we need to start calling foul.

Rather than rant about the problems with drill-and-kill apps or programs that address what Gary Stager refers to as the low-hanging fruit of education (see this excellent recent post), I want to focus on the claim that these tools will be transformative for education.

Even if I accept the premise that these value-add measuring tools give data to administrators that can be used to make decisions about teacher performance and effective learning (note: that is a HUGE “if”), the data that is given is almost useless in terms of educational reform. Here is why:

Teacher A and B both teach a class of similar students (yes, we have already entered the world of fantasy, just go with it).

Teacher A and B both use magic-corporate-out-of-the-box-assessment tool and finds that there are 500 super-duper assessment points of value add in Teacher A’s column. Teacher A gets the top-tier band bonus and a gold star. Teacher B gets and extra duty period and a remedial teacher app for his iPad.

In terms of long range pedagogical change, though, what did the assessment tool tell us?

Is teacher A a superstar lecturer?
Is she running a Montessori-based experiential program?
Does teacher B sit in the back of the classroom while students do worksheets -- i mean math apps?

Ultimately, the assessments give us no data on what actually works and what doesn’t. It gives a mystic aura to the individual teacher but does nothing to guide schools on pedagogy or curriculum redesign in a broader sense. What is ironic is that the same political schools-of-thought that encourage the die-by-assessment measurement of teachers end up glorifying certain teachers and rebuking others without clear explanation about what was done wrong or right by either educator.

Assessments are about measuring ends.

Effective educators can interpret these assessments to create new learning experiences and opportunities for students to improve their knowledge and skill base. They focus on creating new and significant means by which students achieve. That is difficult to quantify and takes practice and patience to replicate in any true way.

Put another way, It’s like Education is an Art, not a Science.
-- and computers don’t do art