You don’t fatten pigs by weighing them…

28 02 2009

I apologise in advance if should be crediting someone with coming up with the figurative phrase that happens to be the title of this post. Neither do I liken students to pigs! But the phrase “you don’t fatten pigs by weighing them” has been one that’s come to mind a lot recently, when considering the growing trend towards over-assessment in the education system. It seems that more and more time is being devoted to assessment and data collection and analysis, than there is devoted to developing good pedagogy, curriculum and teaching practices. 

Don’t get me wrong. Quality assessment tools that provide diagnostic information to teachers are important. They enable analysis, judgement, evaluation, comparisons, grouping of students, identification of needs and support and so forth. However, I can’t help but think that assessment is now becoming more than just that, in the sense that schools (not necessarily through their own choosing) are now looking at assessment as a means to gather data to measure “value adding”. This means measuring the amount of learning and educational capital gained by a student over a period of say 6 or 12 months as measured by the likes of standardised tests in English and mathematics. 

Not only does this sort of view make the incorrect assumption that all students learn in an undifferentiated and consistent and continual manner (along with the assumption that standardised tests are the best way to measure learning), I can only think that this sort of view is likely to lead teachers down the track of becoming very narrow in their teaching.

If we are not careful, this move towards assessment being used to measure “value-added” will see teachers focusing in on a very small set of skills that are included in the standardised tests. The fact is, that these tests are generally focusing in on the basics of English and mathematics – skill sets that can actually be assessed for the quantitative purpose of measuring “value-added”. This will mean that anything that is not included in such tests, anything that requires a qualitative approach to assessment, will soon be seen as “valueless”, or even worse, “value-subtracting” by their place in the curriculum (ie: the arts, physical education, scientific thinking, humanities . . . you can take your pick, really). Even the more diverse, yet equally important aspects of literacy, such as being able to read multimedia and multi-modal digital texts may be excluded from what is considered to be valuable. What about interdisciplinary aspects of the curriculum, such as thinking, ICT, and personal and interpersonal development? Surely these equally important qualitative aspects of education will end up taking a back seat to the more easily measured, isolated basic skills of English and mathematics if “value-adding” really takes hold. 

What is actually needed in fact, is what Wilkinson, L. (2005) would term as a “wide/narrow curriculum”, whereby a wide focus on engaging, broader issues and rich learning contexts provide a purpose for occasional narrow investigations, where necessary, in order to hone skills and understandings. In the context of an engaging wide curriculum, the narrow curriculum gains purpose. A narrow curriculum by itself lacks purpose and will also lack the engagement for learners, which logically would mean poorer results in terms of quality of overall learning across the broader curriculum. 

Assessment tools, no matter how good, will never be a substitute for good pedagogy, good curriculum and good teaching in practice. These aspects of good teaching should be focused on first and foremost, when it comes to the amount of time and money spent on the professional development of teachers and schools and the policies of any education department. Assessment is part of all of these aspects of teaching, rather than something separate in itself. It should inform and enhance quality teaching, not dictate or limit it, or try to measure it in a narrow “value added” sense. 

Further reading: 

Wilkinson, L. (2005). Improving literacy outcomes for students in disadvantaged schools: The importance of teacher theory. In Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Volume 28, No. 2, 2005, pp.127-137.  

Rich Tasks 

National Testing 

Diversity in Literacy