Assessment, Teaching and Learning: A Fractured Relationship
Assessment in education is the measurement of learning; that is, what a student has learned relative to a set of expectations. If students are tasked with learning the content, knowledge and skills detailed in the curriculum, it seems reasonable to expect that these are the outcomes that a teacher would be measuring, reporting and responding to in their practice. But that is not what is taking place in many secondary school classrooms in Ontario.
Diagnosing the Problem
There are several reasons why assessment is often disconnected from teaching and learning curriculum expectations. We know that secondary teachers in Ontario are required to report on student achievement as a number. This is perhaps where the problem begins. Growing Success notes that, for grades 9-12, a “student’s achievement of the overall curriculum expectations will be . . . reported using percentage marks (p. 40) and credits are “granted and recorded for every course in which the student’s final percentage mark is 50 percent or higher” (p. 41). While teachers need to be able to report student achievement as a number on report cards, that does not mean that student achievement ought to be reduced to numbers and calculations. But quite often that is exactly what is happening in our classrooms.
In my view, neither reporting requirements nor poor teaching practice explains inauthentic assessment. We should instead look at where and how teachers track and report student achievement to properly understand the problem. We need to begin with our gradebooks to see why assessment and student achievement have traded expectations-based measurements for numerical reductionism.
Secondary school gradebook software is typically set up using a traditional grading format to generate marks based on assessment data and calculations. Most gradebook software does a good job with this task, and therefore meets the basic reporting demands of Growing Success. Such software in most Ontario school districts, however, only allows for the recording of assessment data as numbers: numbers that are then run through weights and calculations to determine the student mark in a course. There is nothing deeper in most of our district-configured gradebooks that shows how a student is meeting curriculum expectations—no descriptive feedback, no tracking of curriculum expectations and how they are being met, and no evidence of learning that is documented for later reference or to assist in communicating learning. All we have are tests, quizzes, essays and presentations and their associated marks and calculations.
When student achievement is reduced to numbers, several problems emerge. Most obviously, it becomes difficult to identify where a student is unsuccessful and the additional supports that are needed. Is Jimmy’s mark of 56 in math, for example, due to his poor performance on tests and quizzes? Numbers and calculations can tell us that. Perhaps Jimmy just needs to get better at test-taking. Or is Jimmy’s 56 a result of him having some conceptual misunderstandings of the curriculum content? A non-traditional, innovative gradebook setup might identify what these specific issues are and how they have manifested over a variety of assessments. That would enable the appropriate teacher interventions to occur.
The above example shows one of many ways assessment practices directly link to teaching and learning. A gradebook, therefore, has the potential to be far more than a place where student achievement is recorded. A gradebook can document what is taught and what is learned; it can also provide concrete, actionable data that guides teaching strategies, curriculum delivery, targeted interventions, and remediations. Most secondary panel gradebooks do not work this way.
How, then, can we address this tendency to reduce student achievement to a discussion of numbers when our gradebooks push us in this direction? As teachers, we can re-frame assessment conversations where possible. We can talk to students and parents in the language of curriculum expectations and how they are being met by the learner. When we talk about marks and calculations—as required by our reporting guidelines—our discussions should be well informed by supporting descriptive feedback and the learning outcomes in our courses.
But teachers cannot make this shift on their own. Our educational leaders need to recognize the relationship gradebook software and traditional approaches to assessment have to our classroom practices. Assessment needs to be seen as an integral part of the teaching and learning process rather than a number-generating addendum. This shift in thinking requires leadership to embrace forward-thinking ideas and software solutions that can mend the fracture that exists between assessment and our teaching and learning practices in the secondary classroom.