Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Assessment model blues

Last night was 'parents' evening' at my son's school. It isn't officially called parents' evening anymore, and hasn't been for some years, because the students themselves are a very important part of the three-way meeting. Nevertheless, the name has stuck on a colloquial level.

Our younger son is a grafter. Always has been. Every single one of his teachers spoke highly of his work ethic. This was no less true in the subjects where he is struggling. His classwork is always done, as is his homework. He contributes to class discussions, and raises excellent questions. He participates wholeheartedly in group work.

For the duration of his school days to date, every teacher (bar one) has found this child a joy to teach.

And it has been a joy to address his education as a parent.

This may have something to do with the fact that he has known since he was just three years old that he wants to be an explosives demolitionist. Of course, when he was three, he didn't know that it was called that. We didn't either. But as his commitment to this career path has remained strong for the past 14 years, we have learnt a lot about it along the way.

The problem for him at the moment lies with the assessment model. Particularly in respect of pure maths. In order to take Maths with Mechanics, which is essential for his future career, he has to take Pure Maths. And he isn't doing terribly well in the tests. In fact, it is fair to say that he is doing poorly.

Part of the problem is that he was placed in a rather low set for maths (over our objections, just by the way) and that set did not cover some sections of the syllabus. As a consequence, what constitutes revision for the rest of the class, is totally new work for those who were in that set.

But the teacher (Ms Verity who has previously made an appearance in this blog), has said she only wishes he could produce the same work in the test situation that he does for homework. His homework, apparently, is excellent.

The difference is that, when it comes to homework, he can open the text book (yes, they still use them) to the example page, and adapt the worked example to the problem(s) at hand. Or he can look it up online. If he struggles to make sense of the example, he can contact a friend via text message or instant messaging and they can work through it together. He has identified a study buddy, and he checks in with this kid, if he's unsure of his workings.

This sounds rather a lot like life, or like the reality of a working environment to me. Don't you agree?

In a test situation, you're deprived of those options. You can't research the solution and then apply it. You can't get a friend to check your work. You can't ask for support from someone with particular skill in this area.

But I think he is demonstrating a very mature, resourceful skill. A skill that will stand him in great stead for the rest of his life. A skill which far outweighs being able to manipulate surds... whatever the heck they are - I don't think they had been invented yet, when I was at school ;0).

Sadly, we haven't yet figured out how to assess that particular skill. We have only figured out how to subject kids to sensory deprivation and expect them to work purely from memory, and fail them on their inability to manipulate surds under these conditions.

You might think that I feel this way just because this is my son we're talking about, here. But I hope that my track record on the subject of assessment stands on its own merit.

In order to better equip my son to meet the current assessment criteria, we have decided to hire a private tutor (as an aside here, I should point out that the school has laid on extra lessons to help kids like ours catch up, but that these clash with rugby practice and we consider his sporting interests to be a valid component of a well-rounded school education).

Oddly enough, the tutor himself has made his own appearance on this blog before! Thanks to his background, we believe that this young man will be the right person to help our son make up the deficit. Of course, this is going to cost a fair amount of money, but our son has amply demonstrated over the years that he is more than prepared to put in the work from his side. Like I said: a grafter. And he needs this, if he is to get into the university he has identified, to get the qualification he has chosen in order one day to "blow stuff up and get paid for it". Because of that, we consider the money well spent.

But it doesn't mean that it sits easily with me. It is a little like training a performing monkey.

But I am satisfied that my son already demonstrates the sort of characteristics that an explosive demolitionist requires: he is sensible, responsible, hard-working, resourceful, determined... Put that on a report card!


V Yonkers said...

I am going through exactly the same thing with my son. He is taking a college course (hybrid online/face to face labs) in calculus based physics. Now Math has never been his strong suit, but he has worked hard to understand it. Like your son, he does his homework early, then goes in and discusses the areas he's having difficulty in, after he has checked his text and gone online to try to figure out the problems. His professor is much more forgiving in her assessments because she curves the grades and allows them to do the online test for a week. She just asks that they not discuss the questions with their classmates (although each has their own set of questions).

My son is in the middle of applying to universities for next year and a part of this is the SAT's (standardized test). He has taken the test 3 times and the last time he arranged (on his own) to be tutored by an excellent tutor who helped him to pass one of math courses a few years ago. He received the SAT scores yesterday and was disappointed because he significantly improved his writing score (which he did not study for) but his math score was the same. In fact, all three times he took the test, he got almost the identical grade.

The problem is that the way math is assessed on the SAT, there are a large number of problems and you have a time limit to complete it. He was complaining because he pointed out that he often sees a much more complex picture than his classmates, and the assessment just doesn't match what he can do. Fortunately, he is not interested in a profession (like your son) where his math scores are going to prevent him from getting in that profession.

Eric Wilbanks said...

Thanks for the great post, Karen. Even though I'm one of those who has always managed to get above average results on tests, I've always disliked them. Still not really sure WHY I dislike the model so much (I've never really tried to articulate it and I'm not sure I could if I wanted to) ... but it does bother me that we place so much emphasis on test results. Which brings me to the bigger questions: Are there more proven methods for measuring learning and is it possible to implement those methods (for both academic and corporate education) due to the requirements forced upon us by our governments (who seem to be enamored with testing)?

The upsycho said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The upsycho said...

@Virginia We can both be proud of our grafters. They can hold their heads up.
@Eric You touch on a very key point there. It is one I touched on in this post, in fact.

The upsycho said...

Sorry - I'm really struggling to get my link to work, something appears to have gone awry somewhere, so here it is, 'longhand':