Katie White spends her days working to transform the educational experience for teachers and students. She has been an integral part of her own school system's multi-year journey through educational reform and has assisted systems worldwide in their work toward approaches that honor learning relationships.

Making Learning Matter

I have two adult children who have spent multiple years immersed in post-secondary education. Their experiences in this phase of schooling have impacted my own thinking about many aspects of assessment. Most recently, I have been thinking about the purpose assessment holds in communicating the importance and relevance of what is being learned.

 In my assessment work, I have long considered relevance as part of strong assessment design. Humans simply perform better when experiences matter to them; when the tasks they are engaged in hold strong meaning in terms of interest and aspiration. Considering authentic audiences and engaging purposes when crafting assessment experiences is part of effective assessment architecture.

 However, my concept of relevance expanded when my eldest child entered medicine. In this professional college, assessment is a large part of her daily experience. She is assessed on her understanding of anatomy and pathology, as well as her skill in engaging with patients and colleagues and analyzing diagnostic information. Her assessment experiences connect directly to the work she will be engaged in after graduation, and this makes total sense. However, even understanding the logic of this alignment between assessment design and real-life experience, the notion of relevance became even more clear to both of us following her first term in the college.

A Critical “Aha!”

 In the college of medicine, students must achieve a grade of 70 percent on each assessment or they are required to take the assessment again (note: reassessment is mandatory in this context; failure is not an option). These standards seem logical given the need to be proficient at the things being learned. However, when it came to preparing for assessment experiences, my daughter had an “aha” moment. She explained that in all her years of schooling (K–12 plus 5.5 years of post-secondary), she would consistently prepare for assessment by predicting what kinds of questions her teachers would ask and what content would receive the greatest weight on the assessment, so she could achieve the highest grade possible. However, in medicine, she realized this approach would not work anymore because even if she scored the required 70 percent or higher on the assessment, she still might not have learned skills and concepts that could impact the lives of her future patients. She explained that before now, it was about gaming the assessment system, but now it was about learning the right things to support the health and well-being of people. Relevance had become a high-stakes venture. It wasn’t just about getting a good score. Rather, it was about learning deeply. What a profound idea!

What Can We Live With?

 As people who benefit from the skills of medical graduates, my daughter’s “aha” was critically important. We would never be content with saying, “They missed a key assignment so they should receive a zero on that portion,” or, “They didn’t know enough of this content so they should score a 50 percent.” That would mean society could have unprepared doctors and that certainly does not feel right. So, the college sets the bar high and expects students to reach it. Students can then receive support if they aren’t successful the first time, through reassessment, relearning and so on. Performing well is no longer about the grade; it is now about saving lives.

In our educational systems, let’s consider: to what degree do students learn to earn a high grade and to what degree do they learn because it matters? Of course, these two things do not have to be mutually exclusive, but my daughter had identified that even in a college where the learning definitely matters, the assessment system was inadvertently reinforcing a score over understanding. A student might earn the required 70 percent but the 30 percent missed could be critical information. This is an interesting conundrum and one that is present in K–12 schools as well. How can we truly be satisfied with a cut score when it reflects missing skills and understanding that are essential? How do our assessment systems reinforce an acceptance of less than proficient learning?

When the Stakes Are High

It is also intriguing to consider that learning outside of professional colleges might matter (hold relevance) like it does in the school of medicine.  It makes sense that there are things future doctors have to learn. We know how important it is for them to get the right kinds of information. Their learning (or not learning) will affect others profoundly. We also know that their learning is about more than exposure. It is about acquiring academic vocabulary (the language of the body), using diagnostic and therapeutic tools, having conversations in the right ways, applying skills, making predictions, analyzing data, solving complex problems . . . it is deep stuff. And we need these students to get it right. They may not learn everything the first time through, but we depend on them to learn most things by the time they finish their schooling.

Is it possible that learning could hold as much importance in a K–12 system? When you consider it, the stakes are high all the way through school. In fact, this is why governments invest in the education of our children and youth (in theory at least). Our society knows that students today will become teachers in the future (developing student minds in the most important ways), coaches (helping athletes develop their potential to entertain, to be physically literate), engineers (making bridges and buildings that stay standing and keep people safe), lawyers (whose representation can make or break people’s lives), parents (who are raising children), partners (who will nurture and support others and help children understand the meaning of healthy relationships), mechanics (who will ensure the safe operation of vehicles that move at high speeds), politicians (who will govern with compassion and wisdom) . . . you get my point. The learning we develop is always high stakes. We have to have high expectations . . . or poverty continues its cycle, equity is not possible, racism rules the day, critical thinking vanishes, innovation stops, love ceases, and compassion disappears. What we do in schools is important.

Assessment that Reinforces True Relevance

If we believe that learning matters and that our education system is vitally important to a healthy future, we have to expect high levels of complex learning from our amazing students and we have to stop accepting less than this. We also must stop releasing responsibility for making sure it happens by settling for 50 percents and failing grades. This serves no one. Not one person. This is the opposite of teaching.

If learning truly matters, then we need to invest in assessment systems that reflect the most important things:

  • Audit your assessment tools and processes—do they reflect critical and relevant skills and understanding? What gets the most real estate on your tests? What problems are students being invited to solve? When are students creating and innovating?
  • We must offer the very best instruction possible and design assessment experiences that reflect the skills and understanding that truly matter the most. Might we work within collaborative teams to determine the most effective instructional and assessment practices? Where might we go for solutions to challenging teaching and learning problems?
  • We must be prepared to reteach and reassess when needed. How often does our daily schedule reflect time to recover and revisit learning? Have we built in reassessment approaches that are sustainable? Do students understand that learning is non-negotiable?
  • We must believe our students are not only capable of learning deeply but hold the capacity to improve our world. Our students listen to what we say about them. They know when someone believes in their ability to move through challenge. It is important to make sure our assessment systems reflect our beliefs.

To be frank, the stakes have never been higher, and our education system has never been more important. Relevance matters. Learning matters. Students matter. Our future matters. Let’s make sure our assessment systems reflect this in the very best ways.

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