Monday, December 11, 2006

Authentic Assessment

I am reading, on the recommendation of a colleague, a historical novel set in Denmark in the 1760's. The Royal Physician's Visit, by Per Enquist, tells the story of the goings on in the court of King Christian, who takes the throne upon the death of his father King Frederik in 1766. The most interesting passage in the book so far is testimony by one of the young king's tutors, who has been brought in by the ministers of the court, theoretically in order to teach the prince foreign languages, but in reality to become part of a conspiracy to cripple the young man both psychologically and intellectually, so that the ministers will be able to rule the country according to their own whims and inclinations. The tutor observes:

I saw how they were ceaselessly trying to break my pupil's spiritual fortitude so that he learned nothing of his role as a monarch or what came under his authority. He was given no education in the civil laws of his country; he knew nothing about the way the governmental offices divided up their work or the details of how the country was ruled; nor how power emanated from the Crown and was distributed among the individual officials. No one had ever told him what relationships he might fall into regarding neighboring countries; he was ignorant of the kingdom's military and naval forces. His Lord Chancellor, who oversaw his education and each day supervised my lessons, had become Finance Minister without giving up his position as headmaster, but he didn't teach his pupil anything about the duties of his office. The funds the land contributed to the monarchy, the way in which they were added to the Royal Treasury, and whta they were to be used for—these things were completely unknown to the person who would one day rule over all. Several years before his father the King had given him a countery manor; but there the Prince had never appointed a lodgekeeper or personally handed out a single ducat or planted even one tree.

As a teacher I would like to believe that anyone in a position to be able to educate someone would in fact do their best to give a student what that student needs. Part of the reason this passage interests me is that I had never really thought much before about how one might going about arranging an education that would be actively harmful to the student. The notion seems monstrous, and the presence of such hard-edged malevolence is one of the elements that pulls one into the plot of the novel. What is going to happen to this child? Will his tormentors get what they have coming to them?

But the passage poses another question as well, which is how we go about deciding what our students really DO need? Much of what can be found in current curricula, especially curricula developed around them mandated state tests and the No Child Left Behind initiative, seems to have been selected precisely because it's the sort of thing that can be tested with multiple choice questions. It has always seemed to me that the things that I think are most essential and most important for the students to be learning—things like learning how to ask good questions and how to develop the habits of mind which might allow one eventually to find answers to those questions—are the things which the tests do not and cannot measure. Assuming that King Christian had had better instruction, what would his final exam have looked like? The test would have been his ability to rule the country wisely and well: authentic assessment at its best.

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