On Assessment

I have been reading The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.

In the beginning, Knecht is a young boy who welcomes the arrival of a music master to his school. When the man appears, together they play a series of melodies, culminating in a fugue. Knecht is able to keep up, impressing the master enough to convince him to invite Knecht to a different school, one of ascetic commitment to what’s known as the glass bead game.

What is most surprising about The Glass Bead Game in its beginning, and in its selection of Knecht, is how trusting these institutions are in the prospect of having teachers give tests to students.

I do not necessarily know what European education is like, (nor can I imagine it in the 23rd century as Hesse writes), but in the United States, assessment has been given over to companies or institutions like Pearson or College Board. The hope in this externality is to produce a “fair” assessment, one whose equality allows each student a footing that promotes merit. The design of these tests comes with it the assumption that one’s skill at performing well on this test transfers to any skills in higher educational settings. The goal of these tests is to produce a bell curve whereby no deeper scrutiny of a child’s character is warranted or necessary, lest we fall into pesky subjectivity.

With all this said, I found the scene with Knecht to be not only thrilling, but highly revealing of what an authentic assessment really looks like.

The back and forth between the master and the student is very organic. Each time he plays a melody, and each time Knecht responds correctly, the master twists it into something more complex, to the point where Knecht is able to prove his knowledge into realms he has not been in before. In this context, the teacher is a professional, not a laborer, and is fully capable not only of identifying skill, but evaluating it enough in media res, in order to fluctuate his practice to suit the needs of the test at hand.

In American public schools, this kind of provisional exercise is viewed at the very least with skepticism. How can one compare this organic back and forth to another student? How would a school perform this at scale? And is the teacher’s grading policy to be trusted?

Because of this reluctance to view teachers as trustworthy in evaluation, we are finding ourselves privy to two separate educations running in parallel. On the one hand, there is the traditional ideal of what school was. Teachers have been given the methods for distributing assignments and for judging them accordingly. On the other hand, there is the school of the standardized test, a design that not only gives status and privilege, it also is the bane of any parent, teacher, or student.

To be sure, no teacher is perfect. I would encourage anyone to see the report cards or Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein and giggle at the notion that teachers are perfect judges of our posterity.

But neither is a standardized test. Seeing like a state means reducing and glossing over many of the idiosyncrasies that make a personality. And unfortunately in the 21st century, what is glossed over is exactly the toolset that determines success.

The age of the renaissance man or woman is largely over. What allows a young woman to uncomfortably rise to the top of TikTok videos has little to do with her intellect. In Big Hero 6, the protagonist grieves for his brother not by going to summer camp, but by building a technological marvel in his garage, a culmination of days presented in a timelapse. And did anyone really give Michael Phelps a written packet titled On Swimming before allowing him to win eight gold medals in the Olympics?

One could argue that these cases are for the exception, rather than the rule. That assessments are designed for a typical laborer, an employee in the modern nation state, rather than the savant or artist on the fringes. Were that so, would we really want laborers and employees who were not artists or savants?

At the very least, we would be much better served for our democracy if we “lifted all boats” and provided the intellectual adventure of a lifetime. We are forced to be the intellectual companions of our own minds. Wouldn’t we much rather gain some degree of control (or rather, understanding) of why we feel the way we do? For too long I have taught some brilliant students who, as they got closer to graduation, had little to say for themselves on what they wanted to do in life, or what came next. They were dependent on a system that determined their every intellectual move. This is slavery of a different kind, one in which a person either works hard enough for material possessions they have no time to enjoy, or work diligently to make themselves obsolete.

We create assessments that only address a sliver of a fascinating organ. And then we make rapacious their lives for the benefit of wealth.

The rest of us have the benefit of performing only average on these tests, but in so doing we have also opted out of any chance for elitism. All well and good, as we may grow cynical of this war by other means. But along with that view, somehow we also decided not to take our intellects seriously. In my years I have seen a sort of fear on the parents’ faces of the students I teach. They are still holding onto the embarrassments that teachers were able to instill in them before graduation won out. At all times they feel as if they are being tested. They wonder if we view their child as an apple not falling very far from their tree. Where their genetic heritability is what is at stake.

This is the secret shame of standardized testing, and we should be ashamed of ourselves. In walks of life ill-suited for evaluation, we have been trained to view life as a series of right answers and wrong transgressions. When I have sex with my partner, is missionary a supposedly unsexy way to do it? How do I build more productivity into my workday in order to make more money than my neighbor? Before I sell my house, should I paint it slate gray in order to attract a younger buyer? And looking back at ourselves, we are trapped in deep questions which run the danger of eroding the complexity of the thing. Did I find “the one?” Did I work the right job?

Rather than admitting to ourselves that education is a deeply human pursuit, we have outsourced its deepest questions to…nobody. At least, no one in particular. So that come fall we will be practicing the most sterile form of education in human history. Rather than trust teachers, many administrators will make the easy decision, rather than the right one. It will be easy to provide a Learning Management System like Schoology to compensate for sick teachers. Students will cheat and game this system of videos and quizzes and tests, but it won’t matter. Because once again education will be flattened for easier perusal. Instead of paper and #2 pencils, it will be zeros and ones.

Let me be frank: I am not optimistic about the future of education in the time of coronavirus. Most people see this time as wholly new, but as you can see from this post, the deeper reality is that education has been doing “distance learning” for quite some time. Whether students are in the classroom or not is largely irrelevant. They have been separated from themselves. Their own dreams and desires, their own thoughts and interests, have been tossed aside in order to placate an industry who has forcefully interrupted their cognition with multiple choice.

If we are really going to fix education, we need to admit to ourselves how social we are as human beings. Assessments begin with a need for a teacher to see their student in another way. That is the long and the short of it. And until administrators are willing to trust teachers and step away from their role as some logistical big brother, we will never provide the schools we want. We will not make artists of them all.

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