The Adventure of Assessment

Fun times today. A crew of us from Sixnut U went up to UMASS Amherst for a conference on assessment. Terrell, Dwyer, England, Fierro, Brown, and myself. Fierro and Brown followed the historians to their area and the rest of us stayed with English. Minutes after our conclave began its portion, Terrell, Dwyer, England and I departed, one by one so as not to raise the demons of decorum. Luckily we were joined by Mary Ann Nunn of CCSU’s English Department and we sat in the strange Campus Center’s sitting area (the entire building seems as if it should crumblel, supported as it is by a few pillars and plinth supports: imagine an elephant standing on tooth picks) and got down to the work that we felt should have been the priority of the conference: getting down to the details of assessing specific items in an English curriculum given the variety of constraining forces that work against us: such as time, student preparedness, paper work, and other resource issues. We needed real answers, not what what we met. We were a little taken back by the subjects that came up (been there done that) and where the conversations in the group seemed to want to go (problem: been there done that). Nothing seemed to fit with what we needed to get done. I think we got some excellent work done anyway.

What is the problem with assessment? First, it’s often missunderstood. There are simple issues. Define an area of competency, either within a course or in a program, and create a fair means to assess the competency and to assess the means of teaching it. Competency here is a jargon term. Really, it’s all about giving students the opportunity to learn a skill and then figuring whether they can do the work. For example, in Creative Writing, one of the outcomes of the course is for students to show that they can write not just dialogue but “compelling” dialogue. Anyone can write dialogue, “Hey, dude, let’s go ‘uptown.'” “Okay,” but students in a creative writing course should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the difference between flat dialogue and the power of indirect reference and how such indirection deepens the element of character for the audience’s experience of a story. “I hear uptown’s dark, unfriendly; it drips.” “Depends how hard we hit it, squeeze it.”

The outcome is important. Next thing is to come up with a means of measuring different levels of the competency, such as excellence, competence, or null. Typically, this is done with standards. My comp students will know that this is necessary because all assessment requires the use of an evaluative claim, hence the application of qualitiative and quantitive standards (measures) of evaluation. All grades are arguments. But I don’t like grades. I like to evaluate a course’s outcomes and to divide credits by which standards were met and which need work; hence I will often have mutiple grades on a student paper in comp, measuring grammar, the focus of the paper, the presentation, the quality of the research and more. But this method must be cheated in order to meet the obligations of a transcript. I’d like to see a day were students can keep working on an area that needs strengthening because the reality of learning is that even in a comp course, a student may indeed be able to write a thesis but can’t show that they “get” analysis.

More difficult issues have to do with the variety of work students and faculty do at a college and university, assessment being one issue in a complex system and stream. Every program has critical components, different ways of measuring, and different audiences; they have different visions of the future and the present. In addition, institutions often have the will but not the resources to both establish and then carry through with the objectives. The teaching alone is difficult, intense work. Having to shift the priorities of complex systems, which is what academic departments are, is demanding as well. Axes don’t cut ideas. At Sixnut, we work hard at providing good stuff to the student, we worry about maintaining the integrity of subject matter, and we pay attention to the world because we’re a part of it.

Assessment discussion, it seems to me, can get people talking about what matters; but it can also become a stale expression of mechanical reflex and fad. Can mass assessment be worked smoothly in a functioning academic department? The answer is in the detials. What matters in education is the course, the student, and the integrity and dignity of discplined approaches to problem solving.