Learning from Assessment


One of my interesting opportunities for the past several years has been to work as an assistant examiner for the the IBO marking Extended Essay, Biology and Environmental Systems and Societies (ES&S) exams.

When I taught in Korea (2007-2012) I entered the IB world for the first time. To an teacher who grew up in – and then taught in – American schools, it was a shock to my system. My course (Biology) had a written syllabus with specific things to learn and understand. My job as a teacher was to make sure students understand and use that information on their IB Diploma Programme exams. In the USA, and still in most American schools, teachers have a wide latitude of opportunity. In Physical Science (usually grade 9) I should teach physics and chemistry, but whether we studied light or not in the electromagnetism (I love building circuits with wires and cells and lamps) unit was teacher discretion.

I like the discretion. I agree with the philosophy that understanding 2 things deeply is more valuable than scanning highlights of knowledge about 20 things. But the IB prescribes the learning goals and teachers pick and choose which parts their students learn at the peril or exam marks. In a sense the whole modern American struggle with education boils down to his choice:

  1. Is it more valuable to have a valid and reliable measurement of student understanding at the end of high school and so we need to have assessments that can do that and – by implication – a way to identify and teach students for preparation.
  2. Or, are individual students so unique and do their skills, abilities and personhoods vary so much (and need to be fostered so dissimilarly) that we should prevent standardized education and customize education for each child.

Honestly, I see that value in both sides. If you listen to Sir Ken Robinson talk about the industrialization of education, he will likely persuade you toward option 2 (customization.) However, customization and validity in measurement are almost opposing paradigms. The more unique a system/person is and the more uniquely they are treated the less comparable the measurements of their performance are.

So I guess the punchline, which I had not intended to come to, but which my writing here leads me to, is that as individual students, parents, teachers and institutions we need to decide what is our long goal. If the long goal is personal development then customization is probably a preferred route. If our goal is ultimately comparison, like college entrance or minimum skill set in preparation for hiring, then standardization is the goal. And standardization is not only about comparing kids with kids; it is about making sure teachers are providing valuable feedback.

So this brings me back to marking for the IB. My challenge is that as one of thousands of examiners worldwide, I try to apply the criteria in a standardized way to an enormous range of products. Everything from university level research (actually Master’s level research in university labs in some cases!) to growing beans on the kitchen windowsill. The uniform criteria must be applied uniquely to each paper through clear understanding of the requirements. Perhaps this is a way of standardizing and validating measurement while providing opportunity for personal development.

I like that idea!

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