More Quality and Quantity, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! I’m sorry this post is a few hours later than usual today. It was a quiet, peaceful start to the weekend in my world, but it had been a very busy and tiring week … and it’s also the weekend before midterm exams in my face-to-face teaching world. And it was “Spirit Week” at school – always a tiring, if enjoyable, time – and an utterly beautiful Fall day today.

I was intrigued at all the connections with our conversation about qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment that I’ve noticed over the past few days … and about the connections to students’ Ownership of their learning. For example, I spent a good bit of Friday afternoon on the phone with a very concerned parent of one of my Latin I students, who’s apparently been struggling with all of his classes this year. I had hoped to hear from this set of parents, as I’d been very concerned about their son as well: he’s one of those quiet, very respectful, but very disengaged kids who would “fall through the cracks” at many large schools … and, from talking with his mom, he had apparently been hoping to fall through the cracks with us, too. Fortunately for him (but unfortunately for his desire), he has very caring parents and a small school with caring teachers, so we’re now working on creating conditions where taking Ownership will be less painful for him than his current practice of refusing Ownership.

I had a real shock, though, when I looked up D’s current grades in his other classes and discovered just how badly he’d been doing there. If, as a profession, educators embraced the idea of qualitative assessment as we’ve defined it, all kinds of warning bells would have gone off weeks ago, when his grades began to decline. Think about it! If the purpose of assessment is to help teachers and learners, wouldn’t it have helped both D and his parents to know as soon as he started struggling? If we really lived in a qualitative world, I would have been in touch with them early this month, right around the time I got sick … or at least when I had recovered from that horrible, draining virus. But if we really lived in a qualitative world, I suppose there would be systems and procedures in place that allowed students, parents, and teachers to monitor their progress much more easily … and that notified everyone when students’ performance began to slip.

Unfortunately, American public education usually takes a quantitative approach, as we’ve defined the term, when it comes to assessment. We’re much more interested in crunching numbers – in seeing statistical patterns, on the macro level, and “averaging grades” on the micro level – than we are in using the information to help individual struggling learners. The more I think about that, the less I understand it. Even if we fully embraced the factory model, the purpose of quality assurance in a factory is to improve the production process, thus lowering costs and decreasing production defects. So, if an inspector at the local plant discovered that a significant number of widgets had a defect that could be traced to Step 43 on the production line, most companies would be paying some significant attention to Step 43, if only for economic reasons.

And yet, in the “education industry,” we develop all kinds of statistics – statistics about student performance, about the number of students proficient with a given objective, about the number of students who miss a particular question on tests we administer in our own classroom. And then we stop. We don’t change the data into information by acting on it! For example, I’ve noticed this year that my Latin I classes complete less homework on Wednesday nights than they do on other nights … and I stopped there, influenced by decades of a quantitative approach to such information.

In a qualitative world, I would have acted on this discovery somehow:

  • Perhaps I would have asked my students if they had a lot of outside commitments on Wednesdays.
  • Given their responses, I might have adjusted the amount of homework assigned on Wednesday evenings, or I might have worked with them on time-management skills.
  • I might have gone to my colleagues and seen if they were noticing a similar pattern.
  • I might even have contacted colleagues at other schools in the district to see if they were experiencing a similar issue.
  • But no … I just observed the information and recorded it!

The participants in that online staff-development course I teach have mostly reached our unit about “Assessing Your Assessment Approaches” as I write this post. It’s always an eye-opener for them. We don’t use the qualitative and quantitative terms, but we do stress the idea that the results of both formal and informal assessments aren’t a goal in themselves. Instead, the purpose of assessment is to find out how our learners are doing so that we can make changes, if necessary, in our instruction. We may need to speed up, slow down, divide into different groups, or whatever … but the purpose of assessment is to have a basis for our future actions. Anyway, one of “my” participants made the best comment in an assignment I just finished reading. She said she’d always resented the time it takes to develop, grade, and record tests and quizzes, but she now realizes that assessment is a “conversation” (her term) between the teacher and the learners.

A conversation between teacher and learners! What a great definition for assessment … and for education in general! I’m still pondering all the implications of that … and how we can build such a conversation into the heart of the Tres Columnae Project.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to look at the implications of qualitative and quantitative assessment approaches … and we’ll also think more about assessment as conversation. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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Published in: on October 23, 2010 at 7:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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