Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Re-Evaluating Assessment; Recognizing Achievement and Skills

My daughter is a daisy. A daisy is the entry level status of a Girl Scout. Like the Boys Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts are an organization of people that support local causes, learn about their world, and share experiences. Their accomplishments and experiences are recognized by the earning of badges that gets fastened to their uniform. This sash of badges provides a visual record of their experiences and accomplishments and are treasured by the girls that earn them.

There are many assessment systems that we use, outside of our schools, that are based on the similar principles. One obvious example is the assessment systems that are built into digital games. An elaborate example is the assessment system built into the game World of Warcraft (WOW). This assessment system has players earning honors, levels, and capabilities through their game play and are represented in an elaborate profile system within the game. The honors, levels, and capabilities are achieved through experiences and activities the players complete during game play.

Another example of an assessment system that you may be familiar with is the one found within the NikePlus running system. In this tool runners have the ability to log all their runs, sign up for challenges, track their progress, communicate with other runners, and get tips from one another on improving their running skills. Accomplishments are measured through earning awards (badges) for challenges met, and tracking progress through graphs and charts. These accomplishments and recognitions can be shared with friends on the site and to the rest of the world through social media tools.

These two assessments systems, though very different in the content areas that they assess, nevertheless have some very strong similarities. First, these assessment systems cater to the individual. They address the individual’s interest from within the confines of the total activity. For example, in WOW players can choose to work collaboratively to achieve honors and levels, or they can choose to work independently to achieve honors and levels. In the NikePlus assessment system, the individual can choose to focus on challenges such as burning calories, losing weight, increasing speed and a whole host of other specific challenges. The challenges and the area of assessment are under the control of the individuals. They are not predetermined or created by some higher organization. A second important similarity is that these systems foster a model of intrinsic motivation. The individual’s desire to to achieve and improve is based on what the individual wants to do, not on what some other person thinks they should do. Intrinsic motivation is a very powerful tool in learning and education and forms the foundation for all types of learning. One last similarity of these assessments tools is their reliance on a visual representation of the individual’s achievements. People have always seemed to gravitate to displaying their achievements and status through visual representations. I can think of many examples: beaded jewelry, military uniforms, letterman sports jackets, medals and trophies, letter abbreviations before and after names, i.e. , Dr, PhD, EdD, coat of arms, flags and banners, seals, etc. etc. Visual representations of our achievements and skills have been around a very long time.

My thoughts on these types of assessment systems, and how we assess students in our schools, was actually launched in relationship to our district’s Innovative Schools Committee work. In looking at what we would like to share with the school board, in terms of where we should be heading as a learning organization, the ideas of how we assess our students kept creeping back into my head. How useful is the current assessment system? Who is the systems useful for? Are there alternatives to the current system? Are there more relevant tools that are more current for our current environment?

It just so happened at about the same time I started formulating and idea for an alternative assessment system, the following items were shared by some of the people and groups I follow online. “Why Badges Work Better Than Grades” by Cathy Davidson, and available here: and “Badges in the real world - How badges lead to jobs, career advancement and new learning opportunities” by OpenMatt and available here: These two posts only reinforced my thinking in terms of looking at alternatives for how we assess children in our schools.

As you have probably deduced from above, the alternative assessment system I am dreaming up is based on a type of badging system. The following chart compares what a badging system has to offer as compared to our current assessment system in our schools, specifically the school report card.

Badging Assessment System

Report Card Assessment System

Graphic, pictorial representation, strong desire to display and share badges.Letter grades, A,B,C,D, F or O, S, N, U
No ceiling on achievements.A+ is the highest you can go.
No ceiling on what can be measured.Established by standards and governing organization.
Any person with a stake in the success of the learner can contribute assessments, including the learner themselves.Teacher is the assessment contributor.
Higher degree of assessment relevance for learner.Assessment record is limited in its relevance ability.
Assessment System can be deployed in multiple formats: specific content area, specific projects, theme/game based, etc.Assessment system is standardized and predefined.
Assessment System lends itself to development of a culture, or foundation that can capitalize on human characteristics such as emotion, beauty, desire, creativity, etc.Assessment system is limited in building culture or capitalizing on human characteristics
Fosters intrinsic motivation.Foster extrinsic motivation.
Fosters greater degree of buy-in from learner.Fosters limited buy-in from learner.
Assessment does not expire or is limited by a specific time period.Assessment tool is limited by predetermined amount of time, grade level, or age.
Assessments can be tied to real-world experiences.Assessment is tied to generalized content areas.

There are probably many more differences and a few similarities between the two types of assessment systems described above. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.

I am a geek. So you should probably realize that another big component to my ideas on an alternative assessment system would involve a technology component. The technology component focuses on the deployment and management of an assessment system based on badges. To be honest, the technology component interested me just as much as the alternative assessment system idea. This idea provided me with an opportunity to take something from an idea to an actual “application,” putting my teaching methods courses in the area of mySQL, PHP, and application development to good use … yes, I’m half-way joking, but truly believe if teachers came out of teaching programs with the ability to program and create tools for their students, I can only imagine how powerful that would be in our schools.

Stay tuned for part II ...