Evaluating Learning

Today's Guest Blogger, Glory, challenges
 us to think about
the purpose of evaluation and how it should be
used to inform instruction.

Bridging English, ch.13
Sir Ken Robinson’s Talk and the accompanying RSA Animate visual speak to the idea of changing educational paradigms.  It’s an incredible distillation of some very important ideas about education, and I think it’s a good starting point for our discussion of chapter 14. If we are using only traditional methods of evaluation, most of our students will be unable to reach the true goals of English education. It is important to incorporate a “new paradigm,” that is, alternative forms of evaluation, if we hope to guide students to true learning.

Testing-Taming the Beast

More than twenty years ago, education researchers were saying that America was obsessed with testing and grades. This obsession has become the proverbial beast that we as educators now have to contend with. Our nation’s educational system has become centered around testing, particularly high stakes testing.
What does that say about the way that we teach?
What forms of evaluation are most beneficial to student learning?
How do we as educators “tame the beast” of testing and evaluation, so that it can be used as a useful tool that supports student learning?
Teaching to the Test and Traditional forms of evaluation
Legislation like No Child Left Behind (NLCB) ties student performance on standardized tests with incredibly high stakes for all of those involved in education. Failure to have the required pass rates on Standards of Learning (SOL) testing puts schools at risk of closure, and potentially could even affect teachers’ salaries and job stability. It is really no surprise that many teachers have felt the need to “teach to the test.”  However, there seems to be no real evidence that these tests measure more than the ability to take a test.  More importantly, educational research has told us that true learning is not generally taking place when teachers teach to the test.  With this intense focus on standardized test prep, students are simply trained to become better test takers and are not being taught to think creatively, or how to synthesize or apply knowledge to help in the post school world.
Like standardized testing, many traditional forms of evaluation may not support the true aims of learning. Relying solely upon selected response questions that merely check for knowledge or good memory, or using constructed response methods that are not written carefully in order to measure the higher levels of learning that we should be striving for are big concerns when using these traditional forms of evaluation.  Teachers should use these methods only when entirely appropriate, and then must devote time to the creation of quality testing items which reflect the aims of our instruction.
Alternative forms of evaluation and their impact on student learning
There are alternatives to standardized testing and traditional assessment methods. The best of these can be grouped in a category called “evaluation for learning,” as opposed to the traditional “evaluation of learning.” When using evaluation methods such as reading and writing portfolios, self-evaluation, contracts, and observation the evaluation itself becomes a type of scaffolding for student learning. In addition to helping students learn better, these alternative methods are beneficial to teachers, in lightening their paper load.
How can we tame the beast of evaluation?
Traditionally, when grading papers, teachers were usually only evaluating the product of learning, instead of the process. All teachers, but particularly those of writing, must focus evaluation on the process of learning and creating, which is so important. When we assess students on how well they are doing during each step of the learning or creating process, we give value to it, and students will naturally take this process more seriously. When our evaluation becomes a useful tool to help students learn, it becomes much less of a “beast” to deal with in our classroom. If we focus on using good evaluation methods to support learning, the standardized test scores will follow.  
Discussion Questions:
Before reading this chapter, had you planned to use selected response evaluations in your literature evaluation? Has your opinion changed? Why or Why not?
What do you think about holistic scoring of writing? Can you see any potential obstacles in using this method of evaluation? Do you think it’s fair?
Post Script on New Teacher Stress
Because this entry focused on testing and the stress that is associated with it for those in education, I thought I’d share this link, as most of us may soon benefit from such advice.  I found it quite telling that such a document exists, created by the American Psychological Association, no less.