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Assessing the Cult of Assessment

by Michael Clay Thompson

Those new to the MCT language arts curriculum might be puzzled by the absence of sets of stock worksheets and assessments, which other curricula commonly include as the things for students to do. Many programs feature activities that center around pencils, in which students sit silently to fill in blanks, connect matchings, write short answers on short lines, and circle one among multiple choices. In such questions, students find the answer in the book and then copy it into the blank. Such simplistic documents are seen as evidence of accomplishment and completion. Indeed, there may be a feeling of reassurance that comes with seeing short right answers on paper. There is a notion that such questions are “objective,” but is any array of small questions that does not get at the heart of the knowledge—of the concepts—truly objective? Must we be superficial in order to be objective?

For many activities in my curriculum, I am sometimes asked, “What are we supposed to do with this? Just read?” as though reading and discussion lack substance that can only be provided by filling in right answers with pencils. It is true: my curriculum is different, particularly in its philosophy of assessment. I think it is worksheets that lack substance, not reading. I think we must change the terms from what students can find to what they can think after careful reading.

What is the true substance of education? Does it consist of small items that can be copied into small blanks, or does it consist of ideas, concepts, principles, understandings about human dimensions, and things like that, which are better suited to elaborate discussions followed by thoughtful essays that incorporate the facts and terms to which worksheets are limited? Certainly we do want students to absorb the vocabularies and terminologies of the disciplines, but not at the cost of ignoring the understandings that those vocabularies are really about.

Is education an awakening experience of extensive reading, or is it a sedative experience of extensive blanks—thousands of blanks—filled in over a period of years? Is education best conceived as a decade of little answers? I use the adjective little advisedly—not to be insulting but to call unvarnished attention to the nature of such a question. This is too important a problem to express anything less than the truth.

Our educational culture has been overwhelmed by a cult of assessment. Assessment is emphasized as a form of accountability, and there is something approaching an expectation that every activity should be assessed, that it is somehow unprofessional merely to learn and enjoy knowledge, that the follow-up assessment is the real goal. But must every activity be assessed? And do any of these paltry kinds of questions address the important levels of knowledge?

The grim reality is that in thousands of classrooms around the country, education has been degraded from the joyful exploration of knowledge to the demoralizing, tedious, narrow, trivial, and shallow accounting requirements known as assessment. Countless hours are spent on assessment and the preparation for the assessment—hours that could have been spent learning. School systems have told me that they no longer have time for a literature program because the entire school year is devoted to the state’s end-of-year test of skills. Imagine that.

I do understand the concern for accountability, but let us be honest: assessment is not for the students. It does not serve the needs of the students. Assessment is something that adults do for their purposes. These basic forms of assessment are not knowledge, do not have educational content, and do not inspire students.

Assessment drains instructional time without being instructional. You cannot become well-educated with blanks or worksheets.

What would happen if a movie theater began interrupting the movie every twenty minutes, and the audience had to answer ten questions before the movie would resume, and at the end of the movie, the members of the audience were told their scores and informed of the quality of their watching skills? I will tell you what would happen: no one would ever go to that theater again, and it would be out of business in a month. That is what the current cult of assessment is doing to the great movie of knowledge: making students wish they had never bought their tickets.

Furthermore, the most important things to learn are the hardest things to assess. The most concrete and checkable forms of assessment tend to be shallow, convergent, right-wrong, find-the-answer-in-the-book items. Items. Items that can be searched for and found in the text, not items to be developed internally by thinking. Neat and clean. You can make a quiz of twenty-five items, count each item four points, and go celebrate. There is none of that messy depth that leads to open-ended inquiry into an important human principle, none of those iffy abstractions. There is none of that examination of multiple sides of an issue in which the right answer is not certain.

The truth is that most important knowledge is filled with the richness of open questions. Knowledge has many levels. There is certainly a level of fact and vocabulary, but that is only the front gate. The real education happens once you discuss, either in conversation or in an essay, what the facts and words mean, and once you pursue the knowledge to that point, the answers are not unambiguously right and wrong. You wind up not searching in the text but searching in your brain, thinking, suggesting a hypothesis, thinking, and writing carefully. The more you do this, the more you want to know, and the more you read, so the more you want to discuss.

The central goal of the MCT language arts curriculum has always been to present important subjects of knowledge in a way that reveals their coolness, that discloses their importance and excitement and meaning, and so the forms of assessment in this curriculum must be just right, must be real, must themselves be challenging and meaningful, must be somehow of the content, rather than imposed upon the content by stock habits of trivial questioning. It is not necessary to have a written assessment of every activity. It is not necessary to concentrate on the factual level in assessments; we can focus assessment on the level of ideas. A conversation is an assessment also. An essay is an assessment. A laugh can be one of the best assessments. Comprehension can be manifest in the countenance. The assessment must not kill the students’ enthusiasm or needlessly disrupt the learning imagination. Assessment is less important than enlightenment. Assessment must stay in its place, in the service of what is truly important.

Let there be as few assessments as possible so that there is as much time as possible for learning.

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