One of the strengths of the University of Regina Middle Years Education program is that there are so many different connections that can be made between the courses we take. Recently in our ECS410 Assessment class, I had the privilege to reconsider Dr. Joel Westheimer‘s “No Child Left Thinking: Democracy at Risk in Canadian Schools”, and look at Assessment through this lens.
I want to share my reflections, since this process has really influenced how I frame assessment and qualify my own experiences with it, both as a parent as well as a teacher.
- What did you find most interesting about Dr. Westheimer’s talk? Why?
I always appreciate hearing Dr. Joel Westheimer’s views on education. Having read his book, “What Kind of Citizen?” for ESST317 – Teaching Engaged Citizenship: Social Studies and Social/Environmental Activism, I was familiar with some the ideas that he presents in this video. What I found most interesting about this talk was his analysis of the aims of standardized testing and the methods of collecting and interpreting the data and the various ways in which it can be detrimental to students. I also appreciated the challenges of standardized testing, especially having come from, and lived through EQAO as both a parent and a teacher. I have seen how mandatory testing of all students in Grades 3 or 6 can be skewed by students whose abilities, for one reason or another, fall below the “norm”. My own daughter, who couldn’t read well enough in grade 3 to complete the EQAO Reading test on her own, was given an NI rating – ‘Not enough Information to accurately assess her comprehension of the texts’. However, by Grade 6 she had caught up to her peers and was able to complete the EQAO Grade 6 test at/above the provincial standard. Now attending Queen’s University, her goal is to teach High School English. This example demonstrates how Grade 3 can be a particularly challenging year to collect data. Surely exempting students that for whom completing this level of testing will be detrimental or ineffective, would be prudent. As a tutor, I worked with many students who had developed so much anxiety about the EQAO testing that they could not perform successfully at all. These examples make me question whether the results match the intent of the tests, and if, as Westheimer suggests, a sampling of students might not be a more accurate indicator of educational effectiveness. I was pleased to hear that testing in Saskatchewan is not carried out in the same regimented manner. Furthermore, you can imagine my pleasure at hearing from Greg Enion, Director of the Regina Public School Division, that the two standardized tests that the Regina Public Board administers can be opted out if the teacher/school deem a child will be detrimentally affected by taking this type of test. Furthermore, the Regina Public Schools assessment methods place more emphasis on “Value-Added Assessments”, which meet their Assessment philosophy: “Assessment is a sensitive, caring process based on the assumption of achievement for all. Regina Public Schools assesses for, as and of learning in a variety of ways and contexts.” I am excited by the possibility of working in a school division such as this.
- Two ideas/statements that you agreed or disagreed with and why?
One point that I agreed with was the idea that a classroom in a democratic society should look different than a totalitarian society. To me, the most important difference is that we are teaching children to question, adapt, and affect societal progress. This point goes to this quote from the Canadian War Museum that Dr. Westheimer mentions at the very end of his speech:
“History is yours to make. It is not owned or written by someone else for you to learn … History is not just the story you read. It is the one you write. It is the one you remember or denounce or relate to others. It is not predetermined. Every action, every decision, however small, is relevant to its course. History is filled with horror and replete with hope. You shape the balance.”
Teaching students to be democratic thinkers means giving them the experience of affecting change in their lives, the community, and beyond. Understanding that the choices they make can and do make a difference, this models active citizenship and democracy. In our class ERDG317 Teaching Critical Literacy, we are currently reading, “Critical Literacy – Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Text” by Maureen McLaughlin and Glenn DeVoogd. In it, they support Westheimer’s position, stating that one of the four dimensions of critical literacy is, “taking action and promoting social justice – reflecting and acting to change an inappropriate, unequal power relationship between people”. I believe that developing students, to be critical thinkers that believe in affecting changes in their world, is indeed one of the main goals of the middle years classroom, and one that I value.
The second statement that I agree with is the idea attributed to Larry Cuban – “You have to meet students’ expectations, and then change them.” In other words, you have to meet their idea of what school is, before you can break it. I interpret this as meaning that the classroom must at some level be a comfortable, safe place in which students can feel grounded. This also means that students must be comfortable with you as a teacher before they will take risks and step outside the zone to question things. A teacher can create this environment by establishing a connection with each student, and modelling that it is acceptable and important to think critically about the world around us. In this way, a teacher can allow students to relate their learning to their own worldview, and enable them to grow beyond their safety net.
- In your view, what is the most important concept mentioned for assessment theory and practice? Why is it important and how does it relate?
The point that I find to be most relevant to assessment is the idea that self esteem is the number one ingredient of successful people. A focus on self-esteem, combined with the research that shows that the number one goal of parents is for their children to be happy, support Westheimer’s criticism of teaching to the test and standardized testing.
Assessment should not only ensure that students are meeting the curriculum, but that they are doing so in a way that enables them to develop a strong sense of self-esteem and self-worth through the work that they produce. Assessment should measure the journey, not just the destination. By engaging students and assessing them in an individualistic fashion, teachers empower students to take ownership of their learning, thereby increasing self-esteem and happiness in their school life experience. Ultimately, this is the criteria by which I choose to measure my success as a teacher.
So regardless of your profession, how do you measure your success? Is critical thinking embraced in your workplace, or are you rewarded for “towing the line”? Do you focus on the journey, or the destination?