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Monday, July 19, 2010

Assessment: A context senstive activity

One of the things that appeals to me about assessment is that is an abstract concept that can be applied in multiple contexts for diverse purposes. In its most abstract form we set a target, take a measure, recalibrate in such a way as to get closer to a target, take the measure again. It is exactly what happens when an archer shoots an arrow. He selects aims at the bulls eye, let's his arrow fly, notes how far the arrow is from the bulls eye, and then corrects for the next shot.

We apply this model at multiple levels at the university. Students do it. In a class, they decide what grade they want, they do assignments, the assignments are scored and handed back, and from that the student can decide what needs to be done in order to meet the goal. The response can be anything from "I got 100 so I can spend a little more time in the bars" to "That was a 59 so I need to hit the books some time BEFORE 3AM."

The students have the advantage that the system for assessment has already been set up for them. At the university, we have something to say about how our system is set up. We, within certain parameters, get to set our own targets and get to determine the means of measuring how well we do within those targets.

When I say "within certain parameters," this is a caveat that, whatever we do, it must be real. We might imagine ourselves as teachers giving the students the assignment of designing their own test. We wouldn't expect the students to put impossible questions on the exam, but we would certainly want the students to include questions that would test the full scope of the material in question.

When "assessment" is talked about by the administration, the context is that of an institution of higher learning which is answerable to multiple publics. This is to say that we have our students, our state, our alumni, our faculty, our accrediting agency, and ourselves to satisfy, just to name a few. Each of these groups has its own, unique point of view. Our aim is to create a system of assessment that will satisfy each of those.

In this context, the abstract model of which I am so fond is the smallest piece. Assessment becomes a managerial/political activity. One must take part in the creation of a shared vision. That is the challenge.

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