Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Assessment Craze

In the past decade, the movement for education “assessment” has reached a fevered pitch, moving from public elementary and high schools into higher education, at least at most state colleges and universities.  This has been done, ostensibly, in response to a public demand for “accountability,” another loaded word, and this demand has been translated into the most absolute of terms. At my own college, every department and program was, in essence, ordered to develop an assessment plan.  The buzzwords of these plans – rubrics, targets, educational outcomes, and so forth – came along with the orders, though each department was ostensibly free to decide what they would describe as their “outcomes,” and how they would say they would meet them, and measure their success in doing so. And it came with a not-so-veiled threat: if you don't come up with an assessment plan, we'll come up with one for you.'

The next step in this utilitarian, quality-control notion of education, of course, was to make sure that these "outcomes," elaborately measured and assessed, were used to reform -- or more precisely, to penalize -- the educators and pupils who failed to meet the chosen benchmarks. It's a notion so forward-looking that it takes one right back to the 1860's, when Lord Palmerston's government promulgated regulations stipulating the each pupil failing their exams on a prescribed subject would result in the school losing 2s. 8d. in the next year's funds. As the eminent Victorianist Richard Altick describes it, "a new premium was put upon rote memory, for throughout the year every effort was bent toward grinding into the child the sentences or the facts the inspector might demand of him." Bradley Headstone, Dickens's dark schoolmaster in Our Mutual Friend, could hardly have been more pleased.

The word "education" comes from the Latin ex-ducere, “to lead forth" and shares a root with “Duke.”  But it can also mean “to draw forth,” and shares this sense with ductile, meaning stretchable or pliable, as with ducts, and duct tape.  On the difference between these two senses a whole worldview depends: if to educate is to lead, to command, to instill by and with authority, then doubtless it makes sense to see how good one’s pupils are at following instructions, mastering principles, and learning protocols.  But if it means more to “draw forth” -- and this is the shade of its meaning I would emphasize -- then it is not a matter of commanding, but of encouraging students to stretch and bend their minds, making pliable the rigid postures into which authority, and life, have pressed us.   The first sense can be measured, up to a point: I’m sure many baby-boomers such as myself remember the 20-item quiz, which began with with “read all questions before you start” and ended with item 20 being “put down your pencil and don’t answer any of the questions.”  But mental ductility, unlike that of physical materials, is almost impossible to quantify, since some part of it necessarily involves breaking the rules, thinking outside of one’s ideological confines, and questioning presuppositions.

There has been, I will admit, an attempt to take cognisance of this vital quality -- the phrase that is usually used is “critical thinking.”  English professors such as myself generally like this phrase; to us it suggests a complex array of thought and capability.  But what is it, and how might we measure it? One current test defines it as “analyzing problems, generating logical and reasonable approaches to solve and implement solutions, reflecting consistent value orientations” (CTAB). Another assessment rubric recently discussed in my department speaks cryptically of “breaking down informational materials,” “using previously learned information in new and concrete situations” and “creatively or divergently applying prior knowledge.” Such definitions offer little encouragement; to me, they sound more like a plan for recycling than a definition of innovative or genuine analysis. But it matters not: in essence, all these plans are, at their foundations, anti-intellectual assaults on genuine learning.  For true learning is not a plan, not a fixed process, and very rarely a readily-measurable thingAs Albert Einstein -- a famously slow learner - observed, "It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom."

I've been teaching at the college level since 1986 -- thirty years and counting. If this new regime of supposed "assessment" has its day, then higher education as we've known it will soon be coming to a close, to be replaced by a utilitarian yardstick that knows no value other than, or beyond, mere functionality.  Would the last person in the university please turn out the lights?