“Assessment” derives from the Latin ad sedēre, “to sit next to.” A lovely image—reading the same page or screen, together; mirroring responses; the side hug of human warmth; creating energy between us. How very far that is from what assessment has come to mean—teachers stomping at the board or marching the aisles as they drill students, frightening them and their parents about impending test dates, proctoring (shall we etymologize that?) patrolling rows of tykes whose feet might not even reach the floor. It’s military, hostile, intimidating, and wrong. These assessment systems serve the bottom-line of litter-box education—coverage and control.
Teaching to the test teaches students that knowledge is packaged into neat three and four options—all of reality suffering from the fallacies of trifurcation and quatrifurcation—boxed into tiny squares, fill-in holes. Constant choosing between others’ alternatives—not of your own devising. Emily Dickinson, stop looking out the window and define “hope” (1) to wish for, (2) to look forward to, (3) to mistrust, (4) all of the above. Where are the feathers? Where is the singing in the chillest land? Or, Will, stop nibbling on your quill: True or False, “Macbeth is the moving force in Macbeth.” Albert failed the exam that would have allowed him to be an electrical engineer—what if that discouraged him from investigating energy? And math: True or False: 1+1=2? That’s only true in the decimal system: 1+1=10 in the binary.
When we teach to the test, that’s exactly what students learn, sort of—how to take tests. Duh!
Honestly, if it can be teach-to-the-test assessed—it’s not important. If it’s important, it can’t be assessed. I’ll repeat that: if it can be assessed—it’s not important. If it’s important, it can’t be assessed.
That goes for assessing teachers, as well. The most valuable lessons are the ones we can’t teach, directly. When I asked my College Writing: Theory and Practice students (including the chair of my department and several other full professors) what they appreciated most about our work together, I was hoping that they would mention my zippy take on punctuation, or the body of new research we discussed. Their first answer was my passion for writing and respect for students. That was not recorded on any lesson plan for the course.
Learning doesn’t happen in neat, linear increments. I assess my learning and teaching experiences by what stays. It’s one thing to study for and pass the test—it’s another to forget what you studied under duress, and with NO MEANING. One student, hating Shakespeare when she entered a class, ended up having a quote tattooed onto her ankle—“And though she be but little, she is fierce.” That’s assessment for student and teacher, both. When, years later, I learn that a former student is quoting Emily Dickinson in her activist campaigns—that’s assessment of us all.
True education is about helping students to develop as creative, thoughtful, compassionate, energetic human beings. It’s flat-out mean to reduce our educational systems to numbers. We are truly living in George Orwell’s 1984—digitalized and dehumanized by Big Brother education.
Which segues us to the etymology of “test”—the Latin testis for "testicles." There was a time when testimonies (same root) were conducted by the holding thereof for lie-detection. Let’s stop ball-busting, shall we?