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Thursday, June 4, 2009

End of year assessment

Here we go again. State exams are piling up on my desk, demanding my attention and once again this year I’m not ready. Grades for my own students are not set and I have a backlog of work to mark and portfolios to evaluate.

Why do I let this happen year after year? Well, I could always be more organised, but that’s not the only answer. I have such a backlog partly because I get talked into pushing deadlines a week, and then another week, and then two more days…and then…and then there are always a surprising number of students who have been sick or have had supplementary exams or who knows what. And then there are still gaping holes in my assessment overview. So I make deals, push deadlines some more. I send notes home and beg my administrator for permission to submit grades a few days late (oops, forgot that one this year).

Why on earth am I so soft? Because I know that if I just set a deadline and let it sit, I’ll have a ton of work that is not submitted. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to secure a good basis for evaluation. The teacher’s traditional weapon of lowering the grade for missing work is not available, and I must admit I agree with the current fashion in education administration on that one. I could just be content to set grades based on what little I already have from work throughout the year, but such grades are often unfair and no good reflection of the pupil’s real achievement. I could refuse to give grades when pupils don’t submit everything, but this has such serious consequences for the kids that I know I would come under severe pressure to set grades anyway. I could be strict and make a note on each pupil’s disciplinary record every time they do not submit something on time. I probably should do this, I know. They don’t like this and are likely to improve with this kind of threat hanging over them. But I don’t like this. This kind of police regime in the classroom is what made me hate school so much when I was a teenager. Education through threats and negative sanctions. School becomes about doing what is demanded of you, toeing the line, instead of being about learning. My job is supposed to be about helping people learn, not about threatening them to behave. I hate what I become when I start using negative sanctions to control pupil behaviour, and I must admit I’m no good at it.

So there I am, back at the central paradox of learning in the context of an institution full of people who do not want to be there. People who have to learn what is demanded of them, not what they want to.

Luckily, I seem to find myself surrounded by colleagues who also see some of the challenges here. There was lots of good discussion yesterday about the challenges of formal assessment. It’s good to feel that I don’t have to solve all of this on my own. Collective solutions will demand that we think very differently about how we 'do school', but maybe that can be a good thing...

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