Assessing the cost of assessing

Auckland was hit by gale force winds yesterday. The remnants of cyclone Ita and the collective exhalation of thousands of teachers on the last day of term added to the perfect storm. In my wisdom I decided to brave the elements and rode my bike. Observing that there were no other two wheeled vehicles on the road should have been read as a warning but I just clutched onto my drops harder and decided this was an epic opportunity to practice extreme mindfulness. I really was about as comfortable as a fish on a bike.

It was exhausting on every level. I’d used every ounce of concentration, skill, sense and bit of luck to get there in one piece. Walking into work looking at the faces of my colleagues the fatigue and weariness matched mine, although they were somewhat dryer. As students began arriving, they too had ‘done’ stamped clearly across their glazed eyes. It’s only the end of the first term!

I occupy a role in education that affords me some distance from the classroom and allows me to have conversations with young people about how they are making sense of life, including learning. I’ve done my time teaching – it was more learning than teaching if I’m honest and rolled sideways as I became aware of the rumbling avalanche of NCEA and the ‘A’ word – Assessment.

Jump in a time machine back to the 80’s (if you dare) – and New Zealand was experimenting with a combination of exams and internal assessment. Generally however the number of assessments we sat were minimal. Stress wasn’t something any of us really had a concept of except for a very short intense period before end of year exams. Teachers were able to do what they do best, inspire, provoke curiosity, play, create, respond spontaneously, and had TIME to explore content with students.

Before you reach into your memory of High School and pull out the ‘worst teacher’ story – because we ALL have one, this is about structural changes that I feel have come thick and fast and something has to give. There is a cost to both students and teachers. Both have been left scrambling through curriculum content, pushed along by looming deadlines, re-assessment opportunities, evidence gathering and perpetual feedback and progress reports.

When people scoff at youth (let alone teachers!) being stressed at school and are from my generation or older, I resist sarcasm or derision – but not always successfully. The relentless assessment regime over 3 years IS hard on everyone and the carnage is what I see on an increasing level. What is that? Significant anxiety, not just test nerves, but paralytic and overwhelming anxiety. Professional burn out and loss of passion and en-joyment of teaching. Intense pressure to be ‘perfect’ and work harder, longer and to keep ‘raising the bar.’ I’m not saying we shouldn’t aim high but for some reason we have come to believe that more is better and if you say ‘no’ that this indicates some level of failure, or incompetence.

Squeezing more and more out of people is doing nothing to improve the quality of education. That storm yesterday reminded me of the internal struggles I see teachers and students grappling with daily. Fierce winds of change, coming in gusts and catching you off guard on a slippery winding road where the difference between gaining and losing traction is delicate and requires huge reserves of strength at all levels of being.

Insurers measure damage in monetary value. I suggest the cost of the current level of assessment in education is incalculable because it is invisible or worse, desirable. They say if you are caught in an avalanche to ditch the heavy gear, hold onto something, start swimming. Ideally and this is perhaps unrealistic but hey – this is just me writing my thoughts, I would say ‘ditch most assessment’ hold onto authentic and creative teaching and learning, and swim for leisure not for your life.

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