Alternative assessments

A change in the way we assess, evaluate, record and report what learners have experienced, and the evaluations of what has actually been learned is absolutely required for any real improvement in the learning outcomes from our schools. The current approach through standardization, however, is a significant part of the problem, not part of the solution.

It is one thing to criticize the use of standardized tests which are designed ostensibly to measure evidences of learning; it is another to present a viable alternative that has the potential to eradicate the ills of current problematic standardization practices. The Constructive Assessment, Recordkeeping and Evaluation System (CARES) is just such an alternative. Its acceptance by educators, parents and the public at large hinges on an understanding of how the system works and how it addresses the needs of the 21st-century student.

There are currently two recurring factors that keep us searching for answers to our concerns.

1. We often hear the thought expressed that the current version of standardization does not consider the developmental differences in each learner, and beyond this general statement there has been little dialogue about exactly what that means.

2. We often hear that standardization, a common core curriculum and standardized tests need to be reconsidered, but we have yet to be able to specify what might take their place if we were to get rid of them.

Resistance against the process that fosters the use of standardization and standardized tests is stirring in the emotions of many parents and competent educators. But if current efforts to stop the excessive use of standardized tests and standardizing the curriculum are successful, what is available to take their place? Are the public and educators thinking we can just return to the past?

CARES is an alternative available for use at all levels of education. It focuses on the development of mastery of systems that can lead to vastly improved competence in the workplace, the home, government and wherever competence is required in this age of electronic communications.

CARES fosters individual construction of personal meanings derived from experiences offered in the school as well as those found in all other aspects of life outside the school. It provides a clear demonstration of what individual learners have made of their unique experiences.

CARES facilitates the construction of systems of meaning, using the input, storage, manipulation and communication technologies available today. Individuals using this system are free to experience life wherever and whenever it occurs and make the personally developed products of that experience an integral part of an official record.

The record aids each learner’s pursuit of meaning. It aids recall of information, and it provides authentic evidence of the levels of competency-mastery each individual has attained. It motivates continued learning based on development of personal competency with a vision for the future.

The active pursuit of meaning on the part of each learner is the orientation of this system. The assessment, record-keeping, evaluation and reporting procedures are designed to support that orientation.

The teacher’s role is that of facilitator of a transactional process of selecting, seeking, defining, examining, organizing, storing and communicating meanings mainly constructed by each learner, guided by the nature and structures of processes used to create knowledge. It is the learner’s responsibility to engage in inquiry, with assistance when necessary, to formulate reactions in their unique language forms, to construct models to represent the results of their experiences, to insert these evidences into their record and to enter into a process of sharing these outcomes with fellow learners.

Record keeping prevents the loss of important information easily forgotten without one. It maintains continuity in the study of all the manifestations of life. Valuable information is unfortunately lost in the processes where records consist primarily of letter or numerical grades – not very useful for either the learner or any other interested party.

The CARES model involves a redefinition of the Common Core curriculum. Instead of an arbitrary listing of learning outcomes containing what so-called experts have decided we need to know, the CARES model starts with a listing of those things we all should be investigating, building toward mastery throughout our lives in the real world.

The systems orientation of CARES enables learners to creatively construct models of their interpretations of the objects, events and processes they encounter – the gathered information-experiences they accumulate about the parts and relationships found within the world and the universe. Models have four important functions when employed by learners: organizing, heuristic, prediction and measuring. Taking account of the many individual variables in this booming, buzzing universe is made meaningful and manageable by using CARES.

As learners continue their inquiry, they will demonstrate through their records what they experienced, when they experienced it and what they made of those experiences at that time. Later visitations will enable refinements, corrections and development of further insights leading to competencies seldom found resulting from disconnected conventional processes.

Having a complete record of past experiences available with the click of a mouse provides learners with the opportunity to revisit their experiences, refine their skills, reconstruct their meanings and integrate the updated versions into the unique construction of ever-evolving and expanding systems of understanding.

One thing we all have learned: Changing the way we assess and evaluate learning can change the whole system for better or worse. Many feel we have experienced the worse. Modern alternatives deserve consideration.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.