Assessment 5/9/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

With the current pandemic, things are, frankly, just messed up. I know, I’m telling you something you didn’t know.

The problem now is that, with so many institutions moving online, how will we know how to assess the achievements of the students? I have posted before about the problems, at least as I see them, with primary and secondary schools and grade inflation. Teachers have been robbed of a critical tool at the primary and secondary education levels, namely, the power to hold students back. I’m not advocating for routinely failing students, but the problem becomes one of grade inflation. See, there was a time that students were actually expected to participate, complete assignments and pass exams to pass a grade, but parents began suing schools when their students began failing. Today the fear of litigation means that teachers really don’t have the power to hold students back. Even if the school district wins the lawsuit, attorney fees still make it very expensive for school systems with continual budget cuts.

Today there are deeper complications as the result of the pandemic. Now we have a situation where the teachers influence has been minimized as students are being taught by their parents. The teachers are reaching out to their students as best they can, but even the best teachers are relying heavily on remote teaching and parents.

Teachers are used to being assessed. We’re constantly assessed by classroom visits by administrators, student opinion surveys, student success rates and even student complaints. But as far as grades go, what will assessment mean this year? Is it a reflection of the skills of the teachers, the parents, or of the students and their self-discipline?

Out of curiosity, I posed the question on my social media page, namely, how assessment would be done this year. I was surprised to learn that some of my friends said that there would be none. I don’t think this is a national decision, but what I was told is that it is the choice of the state in which my friends answered lived. I’m not sure if this means that students would get a grade based on the first three quarters of the year that they completed, or if everybody would simply get a passing grade, but I was surprised.

At the college level, faculty have the ability to maintain their courses. It’s a different ballgame, really. We have adult learners who are responsible for their own actions, so as long as faculty can get the material to them, regardless of the format, it is the responsibility of the students to learn it. Our classroom assessment continues as scheduled, although, again, the format may be different, and students can still pass or fail based on their own merits.

But even at the college level, not all assessment is being done. The typical student opinion assessment has been cancelled, I’m guessing because faculty are uneasy with the forced online format to begin with, and no administrator visited my online classroom. It’s unfortunate because, even though online is not my preferred format, I do feel as if I transitioned well showing flexibility.

Back at the primary and secondary education levels, there are routine standardized assessment exams at various levels. These apparently have been cancelled, but to be fair, I’m not sure how seriously to take these exams. In the state where I was tenured, these exams are operated by the state and given between the second and third year for the students. The goal of these exams is to “prove” that all of the students (literally one hundred percent) are learning. Unfortunately, while the exams test significant academic disciplines, they are not serious exams. The reason is that the desired results were pre-determined. A legitimate assessment should have some failure; that’s how they show where improvement needs to be made. The score considered to be passing for these exams were set so low that literally nobody should fail, ever. For example, in the math assessment, out of fifty multiple guess questions, if the student could answer, legitimately, two questions, they should receive a passing grade by randomly guessing on the rest. The state is not taking the assessment seriously; they are seeking bragging rights.

Not all standardized testing is so trivial. A new friend of mine took a serious assessment exam today, the Advanced Placement exam in calculus. This is the kind of assessment exam I support. Because of grade inflation, it’s unclear if a student passing an AP course has actually learned the material, so such an exam, which is based on what the student should have learned and covers the same material everywhere in the nation.

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