Last month’s column argued that our current high-stakes school standards and assessment programs are troubled because they focus principally on factual (veridical) knowledge instead of on the kinds of (adaptive) knowledge that underlie preferences and choices. Success in life depends more on our ability to make wise choices than to recall facts.

This month’s column will propose a solution to the standards/assessment controversy.

Curriculum and Assessment Challenges
Mix political realities with emerging understandings of cognition and we can expect an extended (and probably contentious) exploration of how to explicitly and effectively integrate veridical and adaptive learning into measurable curricula. Three tasks loom: (1) improve veridical assessment (factual knowledge), (2) develop techniques for assessing adaptive knowledge and behavior (preferences and choices), and (3) combine both into a broader, more integrative assessment program.

Although this discussion doesn’t focus on how to improve veridical assessment, it’s important to note that it isn’t an impossible task. For example, W. James Popham (2001) presents an excellent, authoritative, easily understood analysis of the validity and reliability issues posed by current high-stakes (principally veridical) assessment programs. His practical proposals for revision at the local and state levels provide educators with a thought provoking strategy for initiating long-overdue reforms.

Assessing adaptive knowledge and decision is a more difficult, but also not impossible, task. Arts, literary, and drama critics constantly do it. For example, newspaper music critics don’t veridically report that the orchestra played 93% of the notes correctly, or that the first violinists were the busiest. Rather they use vague terms (such as exciting, soaring, perfunctory, mournful) to subjectively applaud or question the choices the conductor and musicians made. Readers get the general idea, and typically aren’t concerned that two critics may disagree in their assessment of the concert.

Further, educational research studies that use subjective holistic procedures to assess writing/composition skills tend to achieve high inter-rater reliability. It’s thus possible to achieve reasonable agreement when folks who subjectively assess students’ (adaptively developed) curricular artifacts are competent, and trained in the process.

College admissions are increasingly supplementing student GPA and SAT scores with subjective assessments of the applicants’ (adaptive) extra-curricular and civic activity. Further, college course assessment tends to meld adaptive (term papers, class participation) and veridical (objective text scores) elements into a single course grade.

School assessment programs have so focused on the presumed importance and precision of the veridical elements of the curriculum that it’s difficult for many educators to imagine a successful subjective alternative. Educators in this group could begin their personal transition with the following simple exploratory suggestions.

1. Begin with the realization that student adaptive decisions are central to such ubiquitous educational concepts as multiple intelligences and learning styles; and to such curricular activities as cooperative learning, individual projects/papers, class discussions, and portfolio assessments. What this proposed transition is thus about is simply to make existing adaptive curricular thought and behavior explicit—and so to eventually elevate it to the premier curricular position it should hold by virtue of its cognitive centrality.

2. Explicitly insert adaptive decision making into veridical instruction wherever possible. For example, arithmetic division, which typically focuses on mastering a veridical algorithmic process, becomes a simultaneous adaptive exploration when you ask student teams to equitably divide something like three apples, one banana, 12 grapes, and two oranges among five people—and then to explain how they arrived at their several decisions.

3. The local media are a rich source of information on adaptive decision making. Identify an emerging political (or other) issue that will be resolved within a reasonable period and track its development with your students. In an evolving classroom display, identify veridical/adaptive elements in the sequence of decisions made, and the pro/con arguments for each alternative proposed. When the issue is finally resolved, retrace the trajectory of the issue with your students. Determine where later events proved various decisions to be wise or not wise.

4. I’ve proposed (Sylwester, 2003) that a simple shift in classroom management offers an excellent opportunity for educators to begin the long torturous task of exploring ways to effectively focus on the process of learning, rather than on the end products; on the preferences students have and the choices they make, rather than on the textbook answers they’ve been given.

We’ve tended to think of classroom management as an administrative function (the institution manages the students), but we could easily shift that perspective to one of a collaborative curricular laboratory for learning how to become a responsible citizen in a democratic society. As in a democratic society, very few classroom management decisions are veridical. Further, involving students in classroom decision-making wherever possible makes the concepts of preferences and choices explicit to them—and the immediate feedback on the wisdom of a decision that a collaborative classroom management model provides is important to maturing frontal lobes.

It’s not a revolutionary idea. Many educators from John Dewey on have argued that democratically operated schools are essential to a democratic society, if students are to gradually mature in their ability to develop and express preferences, and to negotiate acceptable choices with others who view issues differently. School is the only place in our society where young people have extended direct contact with dozens of similar—age non-kin youth with different values. Why waste that marvelous opportunity for adaptive maturation on an authoritarian model more tuned to veridical thought?

Some argue that a collaborative management model will create behavior problems, but misbehavior is also a major problem in authoritarian models. A democracy is characterized as much by disagreement as by agreement (in preferences, choices, and decisions). Our country has learned how to agree and disagree on governmental management issues without being unduly disagreeable, and classroom life can function similarly if we commit to that goal.

A Bottom-Up Implementation Strategy
Those who create widely used assessment programs have little incentive to radically revise their tests. Popham (2001) thus proposes a bottom-up veridical assessment revolution in which teachers would regain control over the assessment process. He describes how teachers can individually and informally study the dynamics of assessment, and work to improve their own classroom assessment. General professional competence will thus increase over time, and positive system-wide veridical assessment changes will eventually evolve in a Darwinian manner— the useful ideas will spread, the others will disappear.

I believe the same pattern would occur over time in the development of process and adaptive assessment strategies. The exploratory suggestions above aren’t part of the assessment program and they can occur throughout the day. These two factors enhance constant non-threatening explicit explorations and analyses of student preferences and choices.

Creative breakthroughs in assessing adaptive knowledge and decisions in a democratic setting will begin to occur if thousands of teachers individually and informally begin to explore adaptive data-gathering and analysis techniques within the context of collaborative classroom management and the academic curriculum. Intriguing ideas will emerge and spread. Many bottom-up technological breakthroughs occurred in this manner during the past century, the computer software revolution being perhaps the most prominent recent example.

Such innovations will similarly occur over time in curriculum and assessment if we educators quit complaining and simply begin the long process of reclaiming our profession. Don’t think in terms of quick fixes. We’re in this for the long haul, and it will be a stimulating journey.

What’s required is an individual commitment to help (1) create responsible veridical assessment programs, (2) develop curricular and assessment strategies that enhance wise adaptive choices by students, and (3) convince patrons (and ourselves) that precision and comparison shouldn’t be the central issues in the assessment of imprecise humans.

It’s quite an agenda, but if educators don’t begin now within their own personal professional assignment, things will stay as they are. Or get worse.