Is it worth it?

Is it worth it? One simple question. Set aside for a moment your textbooks with checklists on quality assessment design and statistical software. Ignore the blog posts with titles like “4 Questions You Must Answer Before You Give Another Test!” or “10 MUST Ask Questions About Assessment.” Forget state education tests and mandates or district requirements, look at the assessments within your control and ask one simple question: Is it worth it?

To be worthy, a task has to have value and meaning to the child engaged in the work. When it comes to the boundaries of assessment, we often reflect on how those boundaries impact adults. We’re comfortable talking about how much time teachers spend scoring or wrestling with assessment design from our vantage point. We talk about the value of an assessment’s results for data analysis by adults. We work to make explicit the meaning of an assessment as it relates to a school’s mission or vision. Consider this an invitation to reflect on the worth of the tasks we ask students to do – from their perspective.

Much of what students do in schools every day are things that are found only in school settings. A history professor on Twitter offers a cash bounty for anyone who can find a five paragraph essay “in the wild”. There are sites devoted to the stretches teachers make to create “real world” problems that are anything but. Typically, students submit tasks to their teachers that will be read only by their teachers and never leave the classroom. They’re often given checklists of how to complete a project, resulting in a project that looks exactly like their classmates’ projects. Asking Is it worth it? about assessment is more important than finding a definite answer. For those asking the question, the answer lies in the context in which teaching and learning occurs. In many of these contexts, the curriculum is overwhelmingly prescriptive and there is little autonomy or choice for students, and sometimes for teachers. Yet, taking a beat to consider the worth of the tests, tasks, quizzes, projects, worksheets, and activities we ask students to complete is not only sensible, it’s a humbling experience.

Attending to worth is a way to start building the foundation for the kind of system where students spend their days constructing knowledge in a way that is individual, powerful, meaningful and relevant to them. Identifying opportunities to increase worth is a small move we can make to give students more space to find themselves within the system. Worth can be increased through curriculum moves by asking, wrestling with, and answering essential questions such as “Can we revile a thinker, but revere their thoughts?”, “Is war inevitable?” “Can one person change the world?”. It can also be increased by asking students to identify an authentic audience for their work and then mailing, sending, or presenting their work to that audience, rather than just handing it in to the teacher. Worth can be increased in offering choice – true choice – around an assessment. Consider asking students, “I’m looking for evidence you’ve learned about or mastered this skill, standard, or concept. How do you want to show me your learning?” By asking students to attend to their own culture, to create something, to go beyond the task, we can answer the question, “Why do I need to do this?” before it’s even asked.

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