Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching

7.9 Assessment, Grading, and Testing

Students’ experience in school is substantially shaped by the fact that they are assessed and graded. Again, the primacy of assessment is the result of deliberate choices about how to organize schooling. A school system that uses a whole series of grades in elementary school, and a wide range of separate courses in secondary school, ensures that each student will face a large number of individual and/or group assessments during their schooling.

The requirement that students be assessed has a whole series of consequences for teaching and learning. It can sometimes result in grades becoming more important than the knowledge they are supposed to represent. This becomes apparent when students want to know whether something will “count” before deciding how much effort to put into it. Rather than representing a measure of progress toward the goal of learning, grades instead become the goal. Grades may also change the nature of the student–teacher relationship. Since the assessments may have important consequences for students’ futures, a tension necessarily arises between teacher (assessor) and student (assessed). And rankings can then potentially create conflicts among students.

As mentioned above, school grades have important consequences for students’ futures They may determine whether a student enters an enrichment program or qualifies for a particular university or college program. The problems with grades have been recognized for many years. In principle, it ought to be possible to provide a thoughtful and thorough analysis of students’ skills and weaknesses without using any comparative measure, whether it be letters or numbers. Yet the desire for quantitative measures of achievement remains, even as there is acknowledgement that we tend to not agree on what or how learning is being measured, or on what “success” for students actually means.

Important changes have been made, particularly in elementary schools, in terms of assessing students’ progress (Clarke et al., 2006). However, the school still plays an important role as a sorting organization, helping to determine who will have what economic and social status. Grades play a critical role in that they are used by colleges and universities to determine admissions and by employers to determine hiring. Assessment thus remains an important element of every student’s experience in school.

Assessment also presents teachers with the dilemma of deciding how to determine grades or standing. Does one reward knowledge, effort, good behaviour, or some combination thereof? If teachers are called to differentiate their instruction for different kinds of learners, how do they also differentiate their assessment?

A further example of the impact of school evaluation practices concerns the issue of retention in grade versus social promotion. It used to be routine for students who were having difficulty in school to be failed and required to repeat an entire year’s work over again. In fact, the research shows that students who are retained in grade do not improve their academic performance, and the social costs of the loss of development with age-appropriate peers tends to outweigh the limited academic success of retention (Jimerson et al., 2006). These findings have prompted school systems to develop policies, supported by research, that make it difficult to retain or fail students without significant just cause.

The debate over retention in grade, which has gone on for more than 20 years, is a good example of the impact of school organization on teaching and learning. One might say that the existence of grades by age is an arbitrary device in the first place, since the skills and interests of children of the same age can vary greatly. In fact, neither grade retention nor social promotion is a successful strategy for improving educational success; rather, the focus must be on the use of effective intervention strategies, programs and policies that facilitate student growth socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Issues around the assessment of students have been intensified in recent years by the growing emphasis on external testing of students. Provinces have increased substantially the amount of provincial testing, and the results are being used more publicly to evaluate the overall quality of the school system. Canada also participates in a number of international testing programs that compare students’ achievement in many countries. Such assessments as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and others have been growing, with more countries and more students participating. The results of such large-scale testing are often reported extensively by the mass media, although international comparisons are fraught with problems (Martino & Rezai-Rashti, 2013).

Many educators feel that the focus on external tests is a bad practice for at least two reasons. First, such tests may fail to measure many of the important goals and processes of schooling (Yakulic & Noonan, 2000). It is accepted, for example, that measuring skills in areas such as problem solving through paper-and-pencil tests is very difficult. Efforts have been made to design large-scale tests that do a better job in this regard, but what is called authentic assessment—that is, assessment that is closely matched to the actual skills that are the goals of teaching—is turning out to be both difficult and very expensive.

Second, external tests are seen as driving instruction to an undesirable extent, so that teachers focus on preparing students for tests rather than on other aspects of instruction that may be more important. Some evidence suggests that providing students with careful feedback on their work even without any mark attached has more powerful positive effects on learning than external tests (Littky & Grabelle, 2004). Insofar as tests do focus only on a limited range of skills and knowledge, the problem of diverting instruction is increased. Recent moves in the United States to extend testing to more subjects and grades, with passing a requirement for graduating, have been accompanied by increasing numbers of dropouts and many more allegations of cheating.

Proponents of testing and then publishing results, on the other hand, argue that parents and the public need better information about what students are learning and how well schools are doing in developing skills and knowledge. Some proponents explicitly support such public accountability as a way of putting pressure on educators to do a better job, on the assumption that external review is a powerful motivator—just as, one might note, schools assume that external evaluation motivates students to work harder. They also are justified as being another tool to consider as schools are accountable for data-based decision making.

In fact, large-scale external testing of students shows every sign of continuing and quite possibly expanding in coming years, and so will continue to be an area of controversy.