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Assessment Over Evaluation in Helping New Initiatives Thrive

By Justin Reich — January 13, 2017 3 min read
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This is the fifth post in a series based on the new free online course, Launching Innovation in Schools, offered through edX and taught by MIT faculty Justin Reich and Peter Senge. Launching Innovation in Schools guides school leaders--teacher-leaders, principals, department heads, IT directors, superintendents--through fundamental principles of launching and sustain innovation in schools. It launches January 17 and you can register now.

Separating assessment from evaluation is one way that schools and educators can start having healthier conversations about change and improvement. In a recent conversation with my colleague Peter Senge about the differences between assessment and evaluation, he had this to say:

“I really think the word ‘evaluation’ is wrong. Not wrong in the sense that it doesn’t have any meaning, but I think there tends to be a real confusion. I find this confusion particularly in the education sector (less so in business) between assessment or measurement versus evaluation. In my mind, you cannot learn anything without assessment. It’s indispensable. If you’re trying to learn to walk, if you can’t tell the difference between two steps and 10 steps, you’re not going learn to walk. So, learners are always assessing. They’re making judgment about their progress relative to their aims. It’s essential to learning. No assessment, no learning. Evaluation is when you add a value judgment into the assessment. Like, ‘Oh, I only walked two steps. I’ll never learn to walk.’ You see, that’s unnecessary. So, I always say, ‘Look, evaluation is really optional. You don’t need evaluation. But you need assessment.’”

Despite the importance of assessment and measurement in professional learning, many teachers feel as if evaluation systems have been weaponized against them in recent years--not only to sort, rank, and punish, but in some cases even to publicly shame teachers. So entering into efforts to improve school practices by giving teachers more information about teaching and learning is going to raise both technical challenges--how do we measure what’s worth measuring?--and real emotional and interpersonal challenges: how do we create a community where we can have honest dialogue around data that gives us some insights about how we are doing?

The starting point for these efforts to make assessment a tool for teacher growth and learning rather than for sorting, rewarding, and punishing is developing approaches to assessing teacher practice where teachers genuinely feel like new measures are helping them to their job better and are helping their students learn better. Just like the best teachers help their students understand that grades, feedback, and comments are first and foremost tools to support learning, so should teachers feel like assessments and measurements of their teaching are helping them serve their students better.

One of the best ways to build healthy dialogue around educator assessment is to include teachers in the development of assessment plans. Ask teachers a series of questions to help include their perspective in the design of an assessment program: What are you working on improving? How can you tell whether or not its working? What would you like to gather more data about? How could that data be presented in ways that would allow it to help you serve your students better? By including teachers in assessment efforts from the beginning, that can help lay the ground work for honest dialogue about strengths and opportunities as assessment programs proceed.

Register now for two free upcoming edX courses for educators and school leaders:

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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