The Problem of Evaluation by Michael Clay Thompson

Posted on: 08/17/2015 Back to all blog posts

I’ve always had a certain mistrust of evaluation. Haven’t you, too?

The warning signs are plentiful. Do you remember that wonderful paper you wrote that the professor misunderstood or criticized, not because it was bad but because it jangled his preferences? Do you remember the papers you tried to grade (think about that word: grade), and part of you knew that the grading process was in very large degree a subjective approximation? Do you remember the student you tried to explain her B to, and something in the conversation made you realize that you had gotten it wrong? Do you remember the program you tried to evaluate, but you half-realized that the “instrument” (metaphor alert! metaphor alert!) you were using was only a set of preferences asserted by a representative committee and that somehow a really extraordinary program wound up with low marks?

It is SO difficult.

And see, it isn’t that we shouldn’t evaluate programs, students, projects, or even creative works. In fact, there is no choice because life constantly makes us choose things from the many options that confront us, and we must make the best judgment we can, whether we are omniscient or not. We have to evaluate, and having to do it, we must do the best job of it that we can.

And yet it is fearsome. It is more fearsome than we remember.

So many evaluation methods and procedures are developed to measure—this may come as a shock—measurable things. Things that can be counted, quantified, observed. But do we really believe that the most important components of education are all objectively observable? Can we count joy? Can we calculate passionate involvement in a subject?

It affects people.

I wonder how many gifted children have been significantly hurt by imperfect evaluations (or, for that matter, even by perfect evaluations that hurt their feelings even though true). How many children have just stopped doing something, stopped trying, stopped going to show the teacher things, stopped believing in a dream? How many teachers of gifted children have stopped taking the risk of excellence and originality because the evaluation instrument demanded conformity?

As a classroom teacher, I always tended to have high standards, and to give enormous assignments and challenges, but to be generous about grading. I was muy generoso, one of my students said. I think, deep down, the generosity was based partly on appreciation and admiration of the work the students were doing, but also on deep concerns about the reliability and validity of evaluation. Does anyone really know enough to know, first, what to evaluate, and second, how to do it? I think profound questions are unanswered.

And yet—here’s the thing—we have to. We have to, and so we must, but with a heart full of concern for every student and teacher and administrator whose work will come under inspection and review.

But it is difficult.

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