Thursday, November 27, 2008


I'm always conflicted on the subject of assessments. I understand that they serve the purpose of identifying where the learner is strong and where work is required. But this is only true if the assessment mechanism is reliable. A series of yes/no or multiple guess choice questions has limited value, here.

  • For a work-based learner, surely the point is for them to know where they need to brush up?
  • For the university student, is the point for the university to establish whether allowing this person credit their institution with the letters behind his/her name going to bring the university honour or dishonour? Is it a worthiness thing?
  • In the case of a school child, I'm hoping the point is that the teacher will get an idea of where the child needs help.
But I still think that a reliable method of assessment must revolve around application. For example, ask my sons to spell 'conscience' and they will say out loud "Con. Science," and then write it down correctly. But let them decide to introduce that word into a piece of creative writing or, even worse, an email, or worst of all, a text/IM, and you'll get all manner of interesting variations. So, as far as the teacher is concerned: can they spell 'conscience' or can't they?

Yesterday my younger son took a Spanish test. Of all of us, he is the weakest at languages. I have always had an ear for languages, which my older son has inherited. My husband doesn't have a natural flair, but he developed his ability in order to be able to get by when he arrived in a bilingual English/Afrikaans community in South Africa as a child, able to speak only Swedish. He is the most trilingual of us.

My younger son was woeful at French and, as a consequence, was not permitted to continue with it this September because of an insufficiency of French language teachers at the school. Instead he was moved to Spanish, together with all the other poor achievers.

Yesterday he did a vocabulary test, for which he scored 22/20. I kid you not. The test was for 20 marks, and there was a bonus 4 mark question at the end. He lost 2 marks in the main body of the test, but scored all 4 bonus marks. He is delighted. I wonder at the validity of such a test.

He is also delighted (what teenage boy wouldn't be?) that he learned how to say "did you fart?" in Spanish. I can see how this is going to prove very useful next time we visit Spain on holiday! Mind you, it will probably be a lot more useful than being able to say "I don't have my homework."

I have tried very hard to persuade the child to consider Spanish pod, but he is not motivated to do anything over and above what is on offer at school. So it's fair to say that he is not motivated to learn Spanish. He is merely motivated to pass the assessments.

So I ask again: what is the purpose of assessments and how is it that kids come to view them as the point of the learning, rather than the achievement of a certain level of skill?

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