Traditional Assessment Isolates Learning, Devalues Community and Collaboration

I attended junior high well before the rise of the middle school; therefore, I did not enter high school until 10th grade.

But the greatest shift for me as a student was my sophomore English class taught by Lynn Harrill. Throughout junior high, English class has been a never-ending Sisyphean hell of grammar textbook exercises and a sentence-diagramming marathon throughout 9th grade.

I entered high school a devoted math and science student — but more importantly, I had written essentially nothing of consequence as a student, ever.

Until Mr. Harrill’s class, in which we wrote two essays that sophomore year.

My close friends were a somewhat smaller subset of the so-called “top” students who were tracked in the honors classes. We were both socially and academically close.

By my senior year, we had begun to peer-edit our essays — which we feared was cheating because the workshop approach to teaching writing was not in practice yet and we had as “good students” learned all the unspoken lessons of schooling.

From “Cover your papers” during tests to “Don’t copy your friend’s homework,” we knew that collaboration was cheating — but my close circle of friends also knew something very important: when we were collaborative, we learned, and we learned in ways that surpassed traditional teacher-centered learning.

We were each other’s spell checkers, grammar editors, and unofficial peer-teachers.

Despite the rise of the National Writing Project and the mostly widespread awareness of process writing (although it remains too often misunderstood and mischaracterized), students throughout K-12 and university education experience traditional assessment in isolation — significantly one of the least authentic aspects of traditional assessment.

Throughout my 30-plus-year career, I have advocated for and practiced de-testing and de-grading, but during the more recent 14-plus years at the university level, I have been able to experiment more fully with how this looks in the classroom.

One element of authentic assessment and feedback for students that I have explored is moving away from assessment that isolates and toward collaborative assessment, assessment opportunities that require and emphasize community.

While university professors benefit from much greater professional autonomy than K-12 teachers, university’s still require grades and mid-term/final exams; notably, these exam sessions are pretty strictly regulated in that professors need to show some use of the exam times/days for assessment.

Since I give no tests (a practice I started while a public school English teacher), I have developed mid-term sessions that are collaborative and discussion-based.

For example, each fall my first-year writing seminars and foundations of education class have assignments that build toward spending the actual mid-term exam time in small and whole group discussions.

Class discussions as mid-term exams pose several significant problems in the context of traditional schooling. First, every teacher has experienced the resistance by students and their parents to grades on group work — especially when “good” students get nicked on grades because the group had a member who didn’t pull her/his weight.

Discussion also privileges extroverted students and, just as most of traditional class structures do, disadvantages introverted students.

And as with any form of alternative assessment, students are often uncomfortable with andmay fail to perform well because of different contexts for motivation and accountability.

The classroom discussion as mid-term exam originated with a foundations of education class several years ago — as we confronted the problems with traditional grades and tests, I encouraged the class to brainstorm with me how to create a more authentic mid-term experience.

Last week, I implemented the discussion as mid-term exam in both courses I am teaching.

First-year writing students choose, contact, and interview a professor in a department students are considering for a major. Each student records the interview as an artifact to prove she/he fulfilled that requirement, but then, students come to class with several key take-aways from the interview, which focuses on the professor as a scholar and writer.

The class begins with small-group (3–4 students) discussions that I casually monitor, and then we move to a whole group discussion.

I list the departments/disciplines on the board, and I help structure the discussion to focus on what scholars do and how academics write and submit work for publication (and how some disciplines do not conform to that norm, such as artists and musicians who create and perform).

In the foundations of education course, students read Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap throughout the first half of the course, including a few class sessions for discussions of their reading.

Before the mid-term date, students submit talking points for the class discussions. I encourage those notes to be as specific as possible (quotes, page numbers).

The class session also starts with small-group discussion and then moves to whole group, but in this class, I remain entirely outside the discussions and require the students to navigate everything.

Briefly, at the end, I have a debrief about the experience.

These assessments have a few key elements in common: requiring artifacts of participation, creating small spaces for students to share if whole-group dynamics are uncomfortable, and shifting as much ownership of the learning to the students as possible.

I have been doing this for several years now, and every single one has been impressive. The actual mid-term sessions have always impressed me in a way that no traditional tests have.

In the debrief with my foundations of education class last week, I pointedly asked them to compare the mid-term discussion of a textbook reading to a standard test or individual essay.

Students were eager to argue that the discussion was far more powerful in terms of their understanding and engaging with Gorksi’s work; in fact, the whole-class discussion became extremely animated, and I witnessed students negotiating with both Gorski’s ideas on poverty and their classmates evolving awareness about poverty.

In short, the assessment was not a mere recording of learning, but a learning experience itself.

And what I learned, what the experience reinforced for me? Learning is collaborative, knowledge is the result of a community, and traditional assessment fails miserably since it isolates learners from each other and the teacher while reducing knowledge to a commodity.

As a critical educator, I continue on a journey to practice Paulo Freire’s vision of the teacher-student charged with educating students-teachers.

Assessment as collaboration and community is both something we can all practice in traditional settings and something we must do if we honor education as an act of liberation and the classroom as a space that honors human autonomy and dignity.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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