Assessment, Evaluation, and Gardens

“I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing. . . . Suddenly all the joy was taken away. I was writing for a grade—I was no longer exploring for me. I want to get that back. Will I ever get that back?”


Claire, a student

—Quoted in Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades” (Educational Leadership, Nov 2011)

I walked into my garden recently, and almost walked right out again; it was a chaotic mess! The morning glories are embracing the bean plants and frantically climbing up the sunflower stalks. The winter squash that I tried to grow went berserk and look like monsters. What were once nice, neat rows are now a tangle of weeds, flowers, and plants, all trying to hold their own. If I were to assess and evaluate this garden this year, it would likely get a very low grade. And yet my family and I have been hauling produce out of the garden all summer long; my daughter even raided the basil patches several times over in her pesto-making enterprise. In terms of produce alone, thanks to the rains sent from above, my garden should get a high grade. So which is it, then—an organizationally failed plot of land, or a successfully prolific cornucopia of produce? Is it an A garden or an F garden? Who decides?

How do we assess and evaluate our students? By the neat rows and tidy work handed in? What about our messy, hands-on learners who are always taking things apart and leaving “chaos” behind? What about the ones with learning disabilities who work twice as hard to achieve what other students seem to do without trying? When I went to high school (yes, I confess it was in the late sixties), we didn’t have to write tests. If we did well in class, we were exempt from exams. We wrote massive papers on question-oriented topics such as, “What can we do about the pollution in the river?” and, “What is our cultural mandate in this world?” I much preferred these papers to writing a test.

When I was in university, I had a philosophy professor who was opposed to giving exams. Instead we went to his house for a barbecue, and had an oral discourse on Plato and Aristotle while enjoying dinner. We received our end-of-term grade based on our ability to think and discuss. Some would decry this as being too subjective. I thought it was wonderful, and decided that if this is what philosophy was, I would study it forever. In both cases, the institutions supported the teachers using the “no test” pedagogy, a strategy that mirrored the cultural zeitgeist of the era.

Current educational pedagogy has an intensive focus on assessment and evaluation. Teachers create rubrics by which students measure their projects. While assessment is important—it is ongoing and formative, and exists improve learning (Growing Success 2010)—evaluation is different, in that it is product-oriented and measures what has been learned. I am left with an uncomfortable feeling in regards to evaluation. Having worked with students who have different learning styles, and with many who struggle with learning disabilities, I find testing to be one of the biggest challenges these students face. Evaluative testing often creates unnecessary anxiety among students, and in some cases, this anxiety causes students to lose interest in the learning process. As Alfie Kohn notes in “The Case Against Grades” (Educational Leadership, Nov 2011):

All assessment must be done carefully and sparingly lest students become so concerned about their achievement (how good they are at doing something—or, worse, how their performance compares to others’) that they’re no longer thinking about the learning itself. Even a well-meaning teacher may produce a roomful of children who are so busy monitoring their own reading skills that they’re no longer excited by the stories they’re reading.

Is there a happy medium? Can we teach and assess purposefully and still respect the individuality of each child and his or her learning style? Is there a way to reduce stress by moving away from writing tests to other ways of presenting material learned? The current trend toward project-based learning may be one alternative to strictly evaluative methods. This mode of learning, which can be “messy” and interactive, can serve as a way to bring about success in students with differing skill sets. I have seen creative teachers make all sorts of end-of-term projects to be shared, even using a presentation at an assembly as a culminating project. By all accounts, these methods certainly enhance the joy of learning.

And then there’s my garden. Maybe the beautiful morning glories will reach their potential, even if they did choke out some bean plants! God sees the beauty in each mustard plant, each lowly onion, and each child. Praise God for each moment, and every messy, muddy hand and scribble that comes from it. Let us as teachers continually encourage our students to take risks and see learning as an exploration of ideas, not an exercise in mark-making.