From Michael Clay Thompson

Posted on: 05/01/2013 Back to all blog posts

Assessing the Cult of Assessment

Those new to the MCT language arts curriculum can 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, where students sit silently to fill in blanks, connect matchings, write short answers into boxes, and circle 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 feeling 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.

Assessing the line of Pickett’s Charge at the Gettysburg Battlefield:  Michael Clay Thompson with his publisher, Dr Tom Kemnitz.

I do understand the concern for accountability, but let us be honest: assessment is not for the student. It does not serve the needs of the student. 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 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 student’s 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.

Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts Curriculum


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Comments (3)

  • Danielle S. on 07/12/2013 at 4:35 pm

    I am a strong believer in helping students delve deeper into the literature. I have spent countless hours discussing the purpose of common assessments n the name of data collection and checking off boxes…which is frustrating to say the least. What I was wondering was how you get other educators to join this way of thinking?

  • Miriam Harris-Botzum on 05/11/2013 at 11:04 pm

    Let me begin with a disclaimer: I teach mathematics, which is fundamentally different from reading, English, history, etc.

    With that said, I think what we need to do as educators is to find an appropriate balance between teaching and assessment. Assessment in and of itself is not evil, and in many situations it is necessary.

    One use of assessment that seems to left out of this article is what we call formative assessment. This type of assessment is typically low-stakes or no-stakes, and is performed for the purpose of gauging how well students understand the key concept(s) of a lesson, and whether they are ready to progress, or whether they need more time and help mastering the current lesson. This is often done with “clicker” quizzes, or minute papers, and need not count towards a grade. In mathematics, where most concepts build directly on the previous concepts, this is crucial information for a teacher. It also provides feedback for the students, so they can see if they need further study or help.

    Summative assessment is what most people think of when they hear or read the word “assessment”. It is typically a higher-stakes form of assessment, with the results affecting a student’s grades, or their ability to progress to the next course. It may also affect teacher and school ratings. While this form of assessment is currently overemphasized in our K-12 education system, I think it is still appropriate when done properly. Again, speaking from a discipline where skills and habits of mind build directly from course to course, it is crucial to make sure that students not only learned, but also retained the skills and concepts taught throughout a course, before allowing them to progress to the next course.

    As for the methods of assessment, I agree quite strongly with the author. Multiple-choice tests do not give a good picture of what a student understands, and where they are struggling. We can form a much clearer picture of a student’s understanding through open-ended questions and tasks, including projects, discussions, essays, and free-response questions. All of those can be used for assessment, and should be used for the appropriate subjects.

  • Helen Follis on 05/11/2013 at 5:01 pm

    Beautifully stated! I especially like “the cult of assessment.” It’s all true, sadly; those of us who still believe in reading, writing, and discussion encounter children who must be taught to think, to discuss, to read critically. I will continue to rebel against the cult! Thanks for voicing my views so eloquently!

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