Pearson and the Assessment Problem

Pearson, the largest publisher for all things education on the planet, is "Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment." So I figured I'd better read their 71 page document + 6 pages of references, which, from this children's author's point of view, is from the somewhat repetitive "let me tell you what I told you" school of pedagogy. (Actually, I've met some Pearson people and they seemed very nice and really believe in their products.) And the first part of this white paper was a very cogent analysis of the key features of the "educational revolution" put in table form on page 3, re-iterated on page 23.

One of the biggest problems Pearson is currently facing is the grass-roots pushback against high-stakes standardized tests from various sectors of the country. So they summarize the flaws of assessment with an interesting table, "Assessment: a field in need of reform" on page 4, to wit:

"..... we need assessments that can accommodate the full range of student abilities, that provide meaningful information on learning outcomes, that accommodate the full range of valued outcomes [?], that support students and teachers in making use of ongoing feedback to personalize instruction and improve learning and teaching, and that have integrity [meaning students and schools can't cheat] and are used in ways that motivate improvement efforts and minimize opportunities for cheating and gaming the system."

In other words, Pearson's solution to the problems with assessment is NOT less assessment but MORE assessment that is pervasive during the school day as teachers use technology to record in real time the feedback they give students and student progress minute by minute! All the data can then be mined to grade everyone from students, to teachers, to schools. (It was not clear if this would replace the standardized tests or augment them.) The lens through which the authors of this paper (the heavily credentialed Dr. Peter Hill and Sir Michael Barber) look at the problem reminds me of the blind men describing the elephant depending on which part they were touching. For this expert assessment team the thorniest problem in education guessed it..........assessment! And for Pearson, a big thorny problem = economic opportunity. Metrics? Bring 'em on!

Technology, of course, is the handy tool to solve this problem, albeit that it will take time (eons?) to work out all the algorithms pertaining to learning. But some are already figured out. They are already implementing computers that analyze essays on exams. That's particularly interesting to me as a writer. Have you heard of Narrative Science? It's a program that turns data into a story and it's used by local newspapers (among other clients) to create stories on, say, Little League games because it's cheaper than a real reporter. My quirky mind would love to see a computer assessment essay program analyzing a computer generated story untouched by any human mind. Could it make an anthology of such short stories for public consumption? Would the analyzing program be able to handle this essay? What kind of grade would it get? Maybe it would crash the program. :-) Behind the use of technology is the collection of data that can be mined (and sold) in myriad ways; but always, according to Pearson, for the benefits of teachers and students. Hmmmmmm....

At heart, teaching and learning is a very human, social interaction. Therein lies the problem. Like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, big data education and assessment has no heart. Each child needs time to process lessons in their own individualized way. They need to learn about themselves as they learn about the world and the skills needed to navigate it. They don't need their temperature taken moment to moment as if they're in intensive care.

What can kids do when they're nurtured and supported without tons of assessments? Last month I went to a screening of a documentary film by my seventeen year old grandson Benjamin Trachtenberg, who has spent his entire school life at LREI, a private, progressive school in Manhattan. (I, too, went there.) He chronicled the "honors" project of three high school classmates who sent a weather balloon, loaded with instruments to the stratosphere. I was blown away by the commitment of these boys to learn whatever they needed to know to pull off this ambitious task, which they designed for themselves, and how they dealt with crushing disappointment only to ultimately succeed beyond expectations. When I congratulated the school's director, Phil Kassen, he said, "I didn't do anything. I just got out of the way." He could get out of the way because these boys' education up to this point was very individualized and hands-on.

The most important thing every child needs to learn is their own particular, idiosyncratic way that he or she learns best. That's how you produce life-long learners. Learning should not be shaped by test scores and the fear of failure. Children need room to make mistakes with impunity. They need to be able to discover what resonates with them and to let their interest in something motivate them to acquire skills. Feedback and support from other human beings provide motivation for individuals as well as guide their learning. The relationship a teacher has with students is paramount. Interpersonal connections are the common denominator of all successful educational institutions.

The problem with materials created by BIG EDUCATION is that they are designed to be teacher-proof, turning teachers into technicians. At what cost? What will be the price of such efficacy (Pearson's word) in the pursuit of individual happiness, let alone the future of our nation?