Having followed the American debate about assessment and learning for some time, I think the time has come to contribute to the debate with a perspective from the Danish assessment debate. The following is based on the dilemmas that I am facing as a vice-principal in the Danish equivalent of high school, i. e. the “gymnasium”, and I write from a context of challenges, dilemmas, new creative thoughts, ingrown practices and a strong sense of a need for change.
From what I have read of the American debate, the challenge felt in the US is that rigid tests with a very narrow taxonomy, little room for creativity and independence and strong emphasis on rote learning are forcing teachers to narrow the scope of their teaching and teach to the test. Teaching in this context has become powerless to do what most teachers would like to do and know to be important: focus on deep learning, on creativity, on analysis, on critical thinking etc.
"Teaching in this context has become powerless to do what most teachers would like to do and know to be important: focus on deep learning, on creativity, on analysis, on critical thinking"
In Denmark we have a challenge with assessment. This challenge creates some of the same tensions, challenges and debates that we find in the US, but the starting point is completely different. Firstly, one needs to realise that grades are extremely important to most high school-students in Denmark, as the average grade determines which higher education the student can be accepted into. Consequently, students are very interested in and controlled by grades. Nothing new or - presumably - different here. What is different, however, is the fact that most of the grade average is dependent on what we call “oral grades”. That is, grades given on the basis of oral participation during lessons. Twice during the school year the student is given a grade, and the grade given at the end of the year - or at the end of the course should the course be longer than one year - is the one that counts.
There is great potential in this model, but there are also severe risks and drawback, and I will focus on the latter first, covering three drawbacks: the resource drawback, the data drawback and the arbitrarity drawback
"There is great potential in this model, but there are also severe risks and drawback, and I will focus on the latter first, covering three drawbacks: the resource drawback, the data drawback and the arbitrarity drawback"
The resource drawback is all about the problem of time and access. A lesson is typically 90 minutes long. It is fair to assume that 50% of this is taken up by administrative issues, disciplinary issues and the teacher talking. So, there might be 45 minutes left for the students. With as many as 32 students in class, it seems obvious that access to time and teacher attention becomes a scarce resource. Extroverted students with strong social backgrounds and with the need for a high grade are bound to horde that resource in these circumstances - leaving the introverts, the less ambitious and the socially disadvantaged on the side lines.
This brings us the second drawback: The lack of data. Not only will some students be sidelined in the race for time and teacher attention, thus not producing data for assessment, but even the winners in the race will be producing data that disappears as the lesson ends. Short of recording every lesson, there is little one can do to “save” a lesson for later evaluation. Consequently, we are beginning to see situations where students complain about a grade and the teacher being completely unable to support the grade with data. It becomes a case of take-my-word-for-it, and whose word does one then trust? The teacher’s or the student’s?
"How will a teacher, for example, assess a student who has been a continual loser in the race for time and attention? "
The risk of arbitrarity, then, becomes the third drawback. How will a teacher, for example, assess a student who has been a continual loser in the race for time and attention? Teachers are tempted from time to time to argue that since it is an oral grade, it requires oral participation, and since the student hasn’t participated, a pass grade must be out of the question. This, possibly, of a student from whom the teacher has no data for assessment. And what about moral or disciplinary grading? Since there is a serious lack of data on which to base an objective discussion of the grade, there is very little that can stop a teacher from grading on the basis of sym- or antipathy. It is not my experience that this happens often, but is definitely also my experience that it does happen. A strong component in this arbitrarity drawback is that many teachers still have fixed mindsets - as opposed to growth mindsets. A lot of teachers actually think that they can determine which grade a student “is”. And once the student experiences that “the teacher knows which grade I am”, it is very difficult indeed for that student to focus on becoming rather than being - thus making the teacher’s assumption a self fulfilling prophecy.
Having covered the drawbacks, we must now focus on the potential that I mentioned above. The potential comes from one basic fact: The teacher can do what he or she wants! There is freedom here, and as always freedom comes with risks, with complication and with frustration, but freedom also means potential. The first thing to do is to overcome the drawbacks. All students must have access, all students must produce data for feedback and assessment and all grades must be based on an objective assessment of this data and presented in the language of a growth mindset. Time is still a challenge, but all students in Danish high schools always bring their own device - in most cases devices. Films can be shot, audio recorded, Prezis made, blogs written etc. All students can now get access and produce data. No problem. And once that is in place, the teachers can start doing what they know to be important - and great fun: teaching creativity, teaching analysis, teaching critical thinking. Teaching for life rather than for the test!
My input for the American debate? If - I should say: when - you get rid of the manacles of teaching to the test, relish your freedom by all means, but be wary of the risks that come with a freer system. Tackle the three drawbacks and the road is clear to the teaching and learning that the students deserve. We are not there yet in Denmark, or at my school or - even - in my classroom. But one fine morning…………….!