Throughout this Blueprint, we have argued that to maximize its usefulness in the 21st century world, high school education must shift its emphasis away from simply conveying information, and instead must emphasize broad Habits of Mind and the skills learners will need in order to find, assess, and process information. This shift will require major changes in curriculum, teaching methods, teacher training and support, and school structure, as we have discussed in Chapters 2–6. In this chapter, we discuss another major change that will be necessary: change in the way we assess student progress.
Assessment is vital for students, who need to be aware of the progress they are making and their areas of weakness and of strength. However, the most widely-used assessment methods, which generally centre on formal examinations of various types, are best suited to measuring recall of information.
They are far less effective at measuring “softer” skills such as teamwork, creativity, and resilience. Since these latter skills are precisely what we most want to teach, schools must find better ways to measure students’ mastery of them, or else risk having incentives that run at cross purposes to their true goals.
Assessment serves three distinct functions in education today:
1. Provides feedback to learners – about their progress, strengths, and areas for improvement
2. Sorts students by level of achievement – used by employers, post-secondary educational institutions, and others in their hiring, selection, and credentialing process
3. Provides data for evaluating the performance of schools and school systems – so that administrators can reward those that are performing well and act to remedy those that are performing poorly
The second and third of these functions do not directly benefit the student’s learning process. Indeed, as we shall see in a moment, they often actively interfere with successful learning by driving the system away from good learning experiences. Therefore, we propose that student assessment should focus exclusively on the one role that is an intimate part of the learning process, namely providing feedback to students. In the final section of this chapter, we will briefly discuss how the latter two functions, sorting and school assessment can be handled in other ways.
The Role of Examinations and Grading in Assessment
We will begin this section by laying out what most will see as a radical proposal. We recommend that schools abandon the use of formal examinations and grading in student assessment.
Grades focus attention on outcomes, not the learning process itself. As a result, the grade often becomes more important than what was actually learned. Some exams – notably finals and state or national standardized tests – deliver feedback only when it is too late to refine further learning for that student in that subject. Furthermore, grades encourage the wrong kind of competition in school – competition between students – and do a poor job of encouraging the right kind of competition, namely the internal competitiveness that drives a learner to do his or her very best. Internal competitiveness leads students to work toward continual improvement, rather than some absolute target. Internal competitiveness motivates every student, regardless of their background or level of ability, to perform at their highest possible level.
“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”