Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.
This oft-quoted maxim is often credited to Einstein. The Quote Investigator webpage (and who am I to doubt their authority?) suggests instead that credit should be given to sociologist William Bruce Cameron.
Now that’s all straightened out, it is worth noting that is still a useful maxim in our context here at Prairie Creek. It neatly captures the progressive educator’s discomfort with the inadequacies of the accountability culture that has so influenced public education over the past few decades.
So how do we approach assessment in a child-centered, active learning program? In our evaluation of children’s progress, it is incumbent upon us to instead reflect on what we want to measure about our children, when and how are we going to do it and, perhaps most importantly…why?
These are big questions. At a Progressive Educators’ Institute that I attended a couple of years ago we tackled them from the tradition of a student centered, whole child perspective. We explored ideas of authentic assessment and what that looks like in our programs. Apparently, the Latin root of the word assessment, assidere, means “to sit beside.” At Prairie Creek, I think the assessment of the child is a continual process of getting to know the child. From day one of kindergarten, teachers are continually observing children from a social/emotional perspective. They are watching to see how children are integrating into new classrooms, how are friendships forming, what habits of mind are children already exhibit and which ones show opportunity for growth.
In these first weeks formative evaluation of children’s academic progress is also taking place. Teachers are carefully balancing the essential work of establishing classroom culture while also conducting individual literacy assessments with your children. These are one-to-one assessments where the teacher is literally “sitting beside” the child!
Some counting and measuring undoubtedly takes place to establish a baseline understanding of the child’s progress. Yet, the greater part of the teachers’ work centers on establishing deeper insights into each wonderfully complex and individual child. Their understanding of your children is further strengthened by conversation with you, the parents, at goal-setting conferences. Later in the year, these myriad observations, anecdotes and learning experiences will form the basis of the narratives teachers write later in the year.
I think the questions that we like to ask about authentic assessment are currently being pushed forward in other education circles. They are not just the concern of public progressive educators. It is now widely acknowledged that the No Child Left Behind law that drove the testing culture was a significantly flawed initiative. Aside from the residual damage it caused to key educational values such as play, creativity, innovation and a balanced liberal arts curriculum, its stated goals were simply unreasonable and unattainable. Minnesota, along with other states, is in the process of reassessing its evaluation structure under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
To be clear, we have never questioned the importance of our children becoming competent and confident mathematicians or capable and curious readers. These are important characteristics of the lifelong learner. We just don’t believe that a multiple choice assessment is the only, or the best way, to measure our progress in this work. The MCAs, administered in the spring, provide the state, our authorizer and parent community with some information – but at best, it is only a snapshot of a child's academic performance.
Public school educators and leaders are asking, with an increasingly strong voice, important questions about how much time children should be made to spend in standardized assessments, and, how useful or meaningful the data is. These are questions that we’ve posed at Prairie Creek since we became a public school in 2002 which, incidentally, was the same year No Child Left Behind came into law.
Authentic assessment, like many of the best things we do in schools, is an involved, reflective, time-consuming process that must include the voice of children, parents and teachers alike. Thank you for partnering with us in this work.