Monday, October 5, 2015

Assessing Educational Assessment

      Imagine that you are sitting at your kitchen table and a voice booms out, “You cannot leave the table until you finish a questionnaire of fifty questions about a book you read last night before going to bed.” You are shocked, but the voice is serious and you feel a bit threatened. “This is no joke, you are going to get into big trouble if you don’t finish the questions. You cannot get up from your seat, and also, if you get an answer wrong you have to go back to the beginning and start over, and the questions will all be new questions.” The voice says, “I wrote the book that you read and I want to make sure you understood it correctly. I know you were supposed to go out for coffee but you can’t do that until you finish answering all of the questions.” You feel really sleepy and want a cup of coffee and your head is bobbing up and down. “I just added ten more questions. You can sit here even longer,” says the booming voice. How do you feel? Nervous, upset, angry? “Why should I have to do this right now? Can’t I do this after I have my coffee?”  “No!”…booms the voice. Do you feel helpless, small, not acknowledged? Come on….how do your feel? I know this scenario is a bit of an exaggeration but I want you to focus on how you feel.   
            Now imagine that the person sitting at the table is seven and the voice is yours. Yes, this is you telling your child to sit at the table and finish a questionnaire to prove to you that they read a book and are learning something. Did you forget how it felt to be forced to prove that you know something? And even worse, did you  forget how it felt to not be acknowledged for your feelings? And yet, as parents and teachers, we feel it is OK to demand that our kids be tested to prove that they have learned the lesson. But you might ask, “How will I know if my child is learning unless I test him/her?” There are many ways to assess a person’s knowledge. Testing is only one model.
     Written testing is measurable in the same way filling in worksheets is measurable. There are right and wrong ways of doing this activity. When my kids were little it became very apparent to me that they did not like doing worksheets or workbooks. I wanted them to complete the pages because my school-modeled brain said, “If it is on paper, I can see it. If the blanks are filled in correctly, it proves that they know the information.”
     But soon I realized that filling in the blanks only means that the blanks are filled in with either a correct or incorrect answer. It does not mean anything else beyond this. Paper testing is the easy way out. Active knowledge is far more important and usually sticks for longer, but it takes creativity to assess and it also requires a reversal of roles. The teacher becomes the student and the student the teacher.  Being able to have a conversation about a subject, write about it, or in our house write a song about it and dance it meant the new knowledge was alive inside.
     We acted out the solar system, created artistic renderings of the multiplication tables and put on plays about the food chain. We threw out worksheets and testing in favor of project-based learning. Our house became a museum of learning filled with hand-made displays and our kitchen a science lab. The grocery store became a big math test, “Find the best deals on bread,” and political science lesson, “What brand fits with our ideals about life and global politics?” Our kids learned early on that I don’t support the purchase of Nestlé’s products because of their policies on infant formula in third world countries. Being a La Leche League leader and breastfeeding counselor, I could not support a company that undermines the heath of mother’s and babies.
     But were my kids as smart as their peers in school? Were they on grade level? These are two of the biggest worries of home school parents. I believe a better question to ask is: Are my kids learning what they need to know on their unique journeys in life? This is a huge paradigm shift and one that is difficult for many school-based thinkers. Shouldn’t education be one size fits all? Shouldn’t all children know the same concepts to be successful adults? How could a custom education be useful? If a child has a custom education, how can we measure their knowledge to ensure they are learning enough?
     The whole concept of being on grade level comes from a per-conceived notion that there is such a thing as measuring knowledge quantitatively. As if knowledge is measured in cups and by the time a person is in third grade they should have 30 cups of knowledge in their heads. Or you need 120 cups of knowledge to go to college. If my child is not on grade level they will have to pour in that missed knowledge to catch up. At age 56 should I have 560 cups of knowledge? Should I have more knowledge because I am older?
        One thing I have learned is that an older person is not necessarily wiser. I learn many things from my younger students. We are all teachers, even kids. We have the opportunity to embrace this paradigm shift, not to quantify knowledge but to recognize that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Assessing by grade level is a way for educators to group students to the best of their ability, but it is a human based quantifier. Humans do not innately have this quantifier. Life is a journey for gathering knowledge. Some knowledge serves us on our unique path and other knowledge is quickly forgotten because it is not serving us at the time.
     As homeschool parents we also have the opportunity to view education for what it is. Education is the process of facilitating learning. Let me say that again. Education is the process of facilitating learning. Knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits of a group of people are transferred to other people, through storytelling, discussion, teaching, training, or research. Education frequently takes place under the guidance of educators, but learners may also educate themselves in a process called auto-didactic learning. Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational.
     Please try to put yourself into the shoes of your kids. Would you want to spend hours each day filling in worksheets? Would you want to be tested just to show that you remembered a concept (only to forget it the next day). As parent educators we have the opportunity to think about education and assessment as a creative endeavor and not simply a quantitative exercises. There will come a time when your kids will have to take tests, state testing if they are part of a charter school, the SAT or ACT tests if they want to go directly from homeschooling to some four-year universities, or tests as part of classes they may take that are not taught by you. They will learn how to take tests when it is necessary for them to have this knowledge. In the meantime, make learning fun, hands on, memorable, and most of all, relevant. Throw out the one-size-fits-all approach and become a custom tailor. 
      When my daughter was little we went on many museum tours and the tour guide would often ask the group of kids a question. My daughter never answered. I knew she knew the information and one day I turned to her and said, “You know the answer, why don’t you raise your hand.” She replied, “I know the answer, it is enough that I know it. I don’t need to prove to anyone that I know it. There are other kids in the group who need to prove that they know, so I let them speak.” You have all been given a tremendous responsibility: The keys for unlocking your children’s passion for learning. It is up to you to use these keys wisely.

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