Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Independent Assesments As Counter to Grade Inflation

Brett over at the De Haviland blog raises the question of grade inflation:
I’ve argued elsewhere that we should begin to treat students as customers, not products, of the system. This invariably raises questions about grade inflation – "if students are customers, and have the ability to take their money elsewhere," the argument goes, "then they’ll use that newfound leverage to demand higher, undeserved grades!"
So what does Brett propose:
But it doesn’t have to be that way; in fact, one simple change has the potential to flip the entire dynamic to make the most challenging schools the most desirable.

That change is independent assessment.
Under independent assessment at Brett presents, a third party, not the teacher and not the student, will provide the assessment tools and thus report the grades, or at least an objective measurement of achievement, for students. The dynamic would change dramatically and Brett gives some good examples:
Of course, it’s not like this outside the classroom. Where there is independent assessment of some sort, the equation changes from "give me the best grade" to "teach me to excel" – a profound difference.

The football team isn’t judged by the coach; it’s judged by its performance against other teams, and therefore the players and their supporters want preparation to be as rigorous as possible. The dance teacher isn’t the sole judge of a student’s progress – they hold performances so others can see how well students are doing, giving teachers and students an incentive to prepare. And karate students aren’t evaluated by their sensei – they participate in competitions and demonstrations to work for new belts, an independent evaluation that forces them to strive to meet a predetermined standard.

And so it can be in formal education. If we build an external measurement model that’s respected, allows for comparison across schools and states, and that has some weight (such as being a graduation requirement, and offering comparative scores that are looked at by colleges for admissions purposes), it won’t be possible to game the system. I don’t care if it’s a national test or an independent review panel, as long as the evaluator is an independent entity and the standards and assessment method are known, objective, and uniform.
I have three general questions about the idea, not really obstackles, but questions that would have to be tackled in this idea.

First is cost. Independent assessors will want to be paid and should be paid. So where will the funds come from. Taking them from existing school budgets is sure to raise the hackles of those currently invested in the system, i.e. teh adults in education. But simply tacking on a tax burden to the citizenry will not go over well either. State legislatures would likely to have to come up with some sort of funding mechanism, but that means prioritization.

Second issue is frequency. How requently will these independent assessments be given. Once per month, once per quater, every semester, once per year? The possibilities are endless. Keep in mind that the more frequent the higher the cost, but the less frequent, the fewer chances for corrective action.

Third, and finally, there are subjects such a literature and writing that have a hefty subjective component to them as well. Sure, reading comprehension and the mechanics of writing, like spelling and punctuation can be assessed with any decent test, but there are subjective criteria as well. How would those subjective items be measured.

The idea of an independent assesment will have an added benefit. An independent assessment company will have to build tests based upon the curriculum and standards of a jurisdiction (or a national set if we go that way). That means that teachers will have to stick to the curriculum approved by the state/county since that is the only way in which standards are known about n advance. With an assessment actually built on the standards that are supposed to be taught, you can't get teachers straying too far afield meaning they stay on target and on topic.

Of course, independent assessment will generate a great deal of controversy if ever offered as an option. But in a time when parents are being confronted with more choices in education (not enough mind you, but some choices) they will need a mechanism to judge schools. With the varying standards used by different states and school systems, colleges and employers can use an independent assessment to get an accurate reading on what a student has learned.

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