Assessment in School

Assessment in most U.S. schools means assignments, exams, grades, percentages, and rankings.   However, some teachers and professors offer the option of pass/fail, the holy grail of grading for many students.   This means that students can progress through the course and complete assignments with less stressing over extrinsic motivation and more focus on intrinsic motivation.

In T-550, the decision of Karen Brennan to run the course as Satisfactory/No Credit (the HGSE version of pass/fail) was a perfect example of “practicing what you preach”.  After all, the student-centered learning of  constructionism aligns quite well with student centered assessment.

However, student assessment is often a tricky business because it forces the student to balance between external and personal qualifications.   The student realizes the inherant biases of self assessment, and must find a way to create an assessment that is both fair for others and for his or her conscience.

When we wrote our ideas for assessment on sticky notes in class, all of my assessmets involved narratives of progress:

  • written reflection letter in the first person
  • diagram of goals and how reached
  • in person reflection with professor on set criteria points
  • slideshow in 3rd person addressing assessment criteria

However, after hearing from other examples, I realized that progress and meeting agreed upon course objectives are two separate catagories.  Thus, although a progress narrative sounds much more interesting, I will focus on the later.

The course objectives must come from the very beginning – imbedded in the syllabus.  Fortunately, as per usual, professor Brennan was crystal clear about the T-550 course objectives:

“There are three specific expectations that I consider especially important:
(1) being there, (2) the 1/N rule, and (3) academic honesty.” (Brennan, 2016 T-550 syllabus, pg. 11)

In addition, the syllabus mentioned five main goals: “Maintining a design journal, Developing a self directed project, reading, making things, preparing for guest speakers”  (Brennan, 2016 T-550 syllabus, p. 16-18)

Under the “Making things”, professor Brennan listed 6 products

“(Sep 7) Create a design journal
(Sep 7) Write a 500-word personal learning statement
(Sep 21) Develop an interactive media project with Scratch
(Oct 12) Create a remix
(Oct 26) Design a critique protocol
(Nov 16) Revisit personal learning statement from first week”

(Brennan, 2016 T-550 syllabus, p. 17)

Based upon these explicit objectives, I decided to produce a check-list as a T-550 assessment:


So, it’s not perfect.  It doesn’t take social-emotional skills into account.  It doesn’t take work effort or attitude into account.  And it’s certainly not very creative. But given the loose boundaries of “assessment”, this is what I consider to be a fair, objective assessment for meeting the tangible goals of T-550.

This is not in any way meant to belittle the enormous growth that I have been blessed with by taking T-550 – both personal and professional.  From exposure to novel ideas for constructivist thinking to chances to creatively explore the field of education and inspiration from professor Brennan, guests, and especially fellow classmates, my progress in this course was momentus.  However, the effort and results are so innately intertwined that rather needing a grade or number, what the student takes away is as good a measure as any as to personal engagement with this course.

A Duckworth Daydream

After reading Duckworth’s essay “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”, a overpowering drowsiness overcame me and I drifted off into a deep sleep.   As I slumbered, a dream faded into existence.  It was a dream of a school.  A school of ideas.  Where children went not by compliance but rather by curiosity.  For this school was a laboratory of learning, with eager, knowledgeable teachers standing by to help guide students on their journeys of personal inquiry.  For the most part the teachers remained relatively quiet, smiling and nodding.  The students, on the other hand, were always talking, verbally working through their own wonderful ideas through a vocal blueprint.

Then, at the precisely right moment when the child posed a question, a teacher would ask a guided question of the student.  The effect of this question was that of a rare candy on a Pokémon, propelling the student to a sudden evolution, jumping to a new stage in learning.   The astounding part of these “lessons” was the immense confidence of the student.  For as soon as an idea escaped a student’s lips, he or she would dive into the materials and books around them, testing out the idea immediately.  And as the student pursued a novel thought, the teacher would follow right along, offering new tools and resources along the way.

As the day continued, the wonders never ceased to amaze me.  Not only were the teachers helping the students pursue their inquiries the teachers themselves were learning along with the students, even taking personal notes about the discoveries that both student and teacher made.  It seemed as if the teachers were not only accepting of the student driven path, they were actually embracing the unanticipated!

Sometimes, students would arrive without a specific question.  In response, teachers would direct students’ attention to a pile of materials on the floor, or an interesting feature in the school yard.  The students were then asked to develop a problem to asses! How different this model than the traditional answer location and regurgitation of a traditional school.

In addition to using the materials in the building, the teachers also encouraged the students to access background knowledge.  For instance, when a student was studying properties of a puddle of water, the teacher reminded the student of the towel he left on the poolside that became totally soaked even though just a corner was in the pool. “Wait!” cried the teacher “Maybe the water climbs up the towel, just like a prince climbing Rapunzel’s hair!”  “That’s a wonderful idea”, cried the teacher, “What else can water climb up?”.

At the end of the day, when the final bell rang, it was nigh impossible to remove the students from the school premise, many of them begging for just one more hour or two.  Although I was only there but a day, I was sure that these students would graduate from the school and unleash their intellectual curiosity upon the unsuspecting world.

Duckworth, E. (1972). The having of wonderful ideas. Harvard Educational Review, 42(2), 217-231.