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Performance Assessment Is Best

The claim that knowledge is power is misleading. It's what students do with the knowledge that's important. I thought of that distinction once again during this graduation season. Whether young people are seeking summer employment or a lifelong career, they will need to show that they can add value ("How to Get a Job," The New York Times, May 29).

This reality brings me to the implications for instruction. I realize that performance does not take place in a vacuum. It is the result of knowledge that is learned. But the acquisition of knowledge comes in various levels, as readers of Bloom's Taxonomy know. Despite lofty rhetoric, so much instruction involves straight recall or perhaps a step or two above. As a result, there is little transfer to real-life situations. Wouldn't it help students more if they were given a problem to solve and then graded on the basis of their performance?

That's why I believe that teaching to the test is eminently defensible, provided that the test measures high-level cognitive outcomes. For example, if teachers want their students to be able to state an opinion about a given topic and then support it with evidence, it behooves them to give students copious practice doing precisely that. Does such pedagogy constitute teaching to the test? Absolutely. But I maintain that it is commendable.

When I graduated from Penn, every interview for a job as a writer I went on required me to write in the presence of the interviewer. No one was particularly impressed by my degree, grades or honors. All they were interested in was my ability, which they correctly assessed by my performance. I acknowledge that to get an interview today, young people have to have a diploma, certificate or degree, which serve as a union card. Nevertheless, I believe that my experience still is valid.

Of course, many employers have unrealistic expectations. They want employees who possess precisely the knowledge and skills that their situation demands. They don't want to have to train anyone. But schools do not exist solely for job placement. On the other hand, I don't think it's unreasonable for them to seek employees who can express themselves clearly in writing and in speech. Unfortunately, many schools are falling short in this regard.


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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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