Simplicity V.S. Objectivity: The Crackling Tension of Assessment Tools

Teachers could be compared to a piece of rope. We’re hardy and resistant, but stretched thin over long hours. We’re a necessary piece of equipment that supports a lot of people, but we’re rarely given a second thought, unless we fail. But think on the plight of the rope chosen for Tug of War. Two groups of people come along one day, they pick up either end of the rope, and they begin to pull with all their might. The poor rope in the centre has no choice but to bear all of their tension. For the tensions inherent in teaching, see this text; for an analysis on how easy it is to break even a strong rope, see this article.

The tension I want to focus on in this post is between making assessment tools simple (as argued by Davies, 2011) and making them objective (as demanded by many students and stakeholders). To clarify the arguments, a simple assessment tool is easy to read, easy to understand, is clear and concise, brief, and doesn’t have too many words. An objective assessment tool will give the same result, no matter who uses it – the perspective of the assessor does not impact the result of the assessment.

Most people involved in education fall somewhere in the middle of this rope’s span. The most simple assessment tool is a blank piece of paper – the assessor fills in whatever they want. It’s entirely subjective, completely simple, and not very useful. The most objective tool removes the need for the assessor – it could be filled out by a rock, and you’d get the same results. But, nobody wants an assessor that has no opinions, so we need a bit more subjectivity.

You might be asking yourself, have I crossed my ropes? Aren’t there two tensions here, one between simplicity and complexity, the other between objectivity and subjectivity? Although the tension could be set up as such, it’s more meaningful to braid the ropes into one. Allow me to demonstrate:

You start with a blank piece of paper. Beautifully simple, but terribly subjective – the assessor can write whatever they want! So you decide to give the assessor some criteria. They now have categories they need to assess within. Objectivity increases, but simplicity decreases – you have words on your page now.

Up next, you decide, well, we need some kind of way to convert this into grades, otherwise the board will be upset (an entirely different tension). So you throw down a scale (say, one to four) for each category. But, you’ll need criteria to distinguish between the levels of the scale, so you create criteria for each level of each category. Your assessment tool is starting to be more objective, but simplicity is rapidly vanishing. You have a full scale rubric on your hands now.

Thus the tension, as I’ve established it. But let’s take a step back – let’s go back to the blank page with a few categories written on it. If we have a strong assessor, who knows what they’re talking about, would descriptive feedback under those headings be enough? Would it be the most useful formative feedback to receive? We only started losing our simplicity and devaluing our assessor when we brought in the grades. Maybe we can stick to a page with some categories for all assessment. Maybe evaluation can be determined by the students after they’ve received lots of feedback from their assessment – they can decide what’s important and how to assign grades based on their performance. Maybe grades can become authentic.

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One thought on “Simplicity V.S. Objectivity: The Crackling Tension of Assessment Tools

  1. Thank you Zach for your words. They go deeper and deeper and I feel like I am scuba diving in knowledge and insights.

    We all try to find balance between a fair system within assessment but it is beyond difficult and as you say, “pulls on us from all sides.” I think we need to start with baby steps when figuring out what assessment best works for you as a teacher and which assessments do not work. Once we find our comfort zone in assessment we can move forward from there. Now let it be clear that when I say comfort, I mean appropriate assessment that is necessary for the students learning and optimal for ones teaching. We must both look at our strengths so that we can build on our students learning. Now this does not mean that we never use any other form of assessment but rather become comfortable with one then move forward from there. If we have somewhere where we can start it can develop into a great learning environment. As someone said once, “Start big, start small but at least start.”

    The focus of assessment is essentially for the greater good of the student. Some byproducts of good assessment are: Less stress for the teacher, good relationships with student and/or parent/s, better results of learning for student, etc. Therefore we must learn good assessment techniques and the reason behind why we apply the types of assessment we do. As Lee Shaefer (my PE professor) says, “Everything you do in teaching must have purpose.” If we have no purpose in our assessment we fall short and are not teaching- we are then winging it.

    What do you think is the appropriate balance that you are wanting as a teacher? How would this look in a rubric?

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