Assessment in a “Progressive School” by Chris von Lersner

Introduction by Ann:

My niece Sabine is attending a progressive middle/high school this year.  Her mother and I decided that the assessment climate at Denison, the public Montessori school where she attended last year as a student in my class, was wasting her time and  potential, if not actually squelching it.  At her new school, her cohort of sixth/seventh graders (her Expedition group) began the school year with a week-long camping trip followed by an assignment to create a brochure about her experience on the trip.  Just a few weeks later the same group of students were planning a river trip to find the headwaters of the Colorado River.  When they returned after another exhilirating experience, the assignment was to create a map of the trip.  It was during the stress of completing the second assignment that the pressure to “measure up” to the assessment standards for this assignment surfaced.  Dismayed that again arbitrary measures of a child’s efforts were stifling creative thought and the joy of work, Sabine’s mother, Chris von Lersner, wrote the following piece, which she sent to the head of school and the coordinator of the middle school program:

My concern is with assessment. Sabine’s Expedition has now completed 2 monster assignments (ICE brochure and Personal River Map) that required a substantial amount of home time and home support.  I got the impression these assignments were over Bean’s head, but she was plowing ahead diligently, without complaint, and I figured it was a good way for the teachers to get some baseline info on who the new kids are and where they’re coming from academically, while also challenging the older students.
The ICE brochure assignment had its issues–nobody seemed to understand that Google Docs is meant for online sharing rather than for printing/publishing. Sabine spent at least 5 hours (no exaggeration) one Sunday lovingly formatting her brochure (keep in mind she lives with a graphic designer), and every time she tried to print it, the formatting got so completely lost that she had to recreate it from scratch. I kept telling her to let it go, that nobody would expect more of her than she’d done already. She insisted she had to print it, and she was now quite attached to the sizing and spacing and composition that she’d worked so hard on. When she finally convinced me to step in and help her get it right, we both struggled in vain before I convinced her to give it up. I asked Cory about it the next morning, and he said, “Oh no, don’t try to publish out of Google Docs–it won’t hold the formatting.”     Okay. No big deal. The teachers aren’t yet well-versed in Google Apps and nothing was really lost. Sabine was still quite proud of her virtual document, which, to their credit, the teachers were willing to assess online.  The assignment WAY stretched her. She’s an amazing kid, but a pretty ordinary student–not much of a reader, and her writing shows it. She pushed herself from a point of not getting the assignment at all (“What’s a brochure?  I mean, I’ve heard of one, but I don’t really know what they’re for…”  “What do they mean by a story from my journal?…it’s all just a bunch of we did this and we ate that…”) through a new understanding of the Watershed (ICE) virtues and a pretty thoughtful commentary on Craftsmanship (which is one of her challenges). My initial skepticism was pretty much erased by her pride in her final document, despite the fact that we couldn’t print it out and mail it as hoped.
Moving right along. Next monster assignment. Personal River map. A huge enterprise, accompanied by a pretty nice online document and some useful links to guide the process. I see Remy’s mother every day and she tells me she and Mark have to do a lot of hand holding and helping, because this assignment is WAY over the kids’ heads. I keep telling her, “Forget it. This school isn’t about product, it’s about process. Stay out of the way. Let your kid do what’s meaningful to her and let her get out of it what she will. Nobody’s trying to make her into something she’s not. Nobody’s going to tell her it’s not good enough just because her parents didn’t  see to it that she executed it like an adult would.”  “Oh yeah?” says Shauna, “What did Sabine get on her ICE brochure?”  “What did she get? What do you mean what did she get?”  “What score did she get on her ICE brochure?”  “They didn’t score those things; I’m telling you this place is about the instrinsic value of the work–not what the teacher thinks of you. That’s old school.”  “I suggest you ask Sabine what she got.”  At home, I ask Sabine if she got any feedback on her brochure. She says she did. I ask what Jen said. She says Jen didn’t say anything–she gave her some papers. I ask if I can see the papers. She digs them out of the bottom of her pack. I ask why she didn’t show them to me. She says she just forgot. The pages she showed me are a museum exhibit: a paragon of arbitrary, inscrutable and ineffective old-school teacher feedback. (I will be happy to share them with you. I will stand by those words.) I first thought I had page 3 of 5. I asked Bean where the other pages were. She said, “That’s the whole thing.” I said, “It says here this is the 3rd of 5 pages.” She answered, “It means I got a 3 out of 5.” After some study I realized that it actually WAS a score, followed by what I, as an experienced interpreter of teacher feedback, recognized to be some rationales. A score? a 3?  3 what?  3 stars? 3 carrots? 5 what? why not 7? why not 10? It took deep study to determine which of the words on the paper were Sabine’s words, which were a teacher’s words and which were the categories she was being evaluated on. There was a URL address along the bottom, but no indication of what we might find there. (Maybe just providing the capability to share her scores with her grandparents?) Another victory for Google Docs’s poor formatting capabilities, I guess. I asked Bean how she felt about it. She shrugged, and said, “I just don’t really get what it means.” We had a long conversation about what we thought was great about her brochure; what was hard, what was worthwhile, which parts of the assignment were kind of silly. I described how I saw her stretch herself, how her work ethic impressed me, how creative she was in finding an association between the available Picasa pictures and the content of her brochure (this took hours!), how thoughtful she had been in turning an odd experience into a story that could teach a lesson, how respectful she’d been about describing other kids’ behavior honestly without being unkind, how responsive she’d been to her teachers’ suggestions, and how much improved her writing was compared to her initial journal entry. I let her know clearly that I could not recognize any connection between a 3 of 5 and the experience she had or the effort she exerted. I told her I would have been just as perplexed if she’d gotten a 5 of 5. In my universe, those numbers have no meaning. She said she knew that already. She was still proud of her brochure. So, no harm done, really. An opportunity lost, perhaps, and a lesson learned about what’s important at school (and what’s not).
Back to the River Map. Now I’m slightly paranoid. I’m thinking, “Should I be doing this assignment with and for her to protect her from the low score she’ll inevitably get if I let her believe her own efforts are worthy?” I decide to try to strike a balance. I give longer answers to her questions, rather than answering her questions with questions of my own. I start to offer suggestions, but I don’t push any of my ideas or do any of the work. She’s deeply engaged and she’s religious about putting in 20 minutes a night, as she’d been asked to do. She has some creative ideas, like making the written stuff look like it’s actually pages ripped out of a diary. She spends an hour designing a (very simple and childlike) compass rose and choosing pictures that make sense in the context of her map. She worries about how to squeeze in things that don’t make sense to her…(Where should I put an observation about ICE character traits on a map?” “Boulder Creek is not even part of the Colorado…how am I supposed to write about Boulder Creek?”)  I reassure her, “Don’t obsess over that stuff. Those are just suggestions.  This map is supposed be your interpretation of your experience. All the maps don’t have to be the same. If it’s not meaningful to you, don’t put it on your map.” She insists that this stuff is required. I say, “If it doesn’t have a logical connection in your mind, don’t try to use logic to get it right. Use your eye.”

THE NIGHT BEFORE THIS MONSTER PROJECT IS DUE, a rubric comes home. Actually, I think “Rubric” is a euphemism. This thing is a plain, old-fashioned scoring matrix. Now I see Sabine slumped over it, wringing her hands because it says you only get a 2 if it looks like your writings came straight and unedited from your journal.  She’s trying to see if she can pull the journal pages off her map, and starting to rip things that were beautiful a moment ago. (I say, “But they’re NOT straight and unedited.” She says, “But it LOOKS like it’s straight and unedited.” I say, “That was the whole plan.” She says, “Now I’m gonna get a 2.” She was adamant that she wanted to create the look of journal entries–she didn’t just want a bunch of computer output. Now what? To make matters worse, you only get a 2 if your handwriting looks “hurried.” (Hurried? Sabine has small, uneven handwriting that gets smaller and more uneven when she tightens up and tries to make it perfect. Who will decide if it looks hurried? How will they know?) Next, she starts counting her visuals, saying she needs at least 2 more. (Whether you get a high score or not depends on HOW MANY pictures you printed out and pasted on? Do the decorations along the state borders “count?” Does each decorated state border constitute one visual, or are they one when taken together?) I don’t need to go on. I will just tell you that, rather than putting finishing touches on in the prideful way she had approached the project up to that point, she spent her last night of work studying the rubric, shopping for scores, and deciding where she would have to settle for lower numbers. I kept overhearing her say things like: “I’m probably just going to get a 2 on that part.” I could see the confidence and energy dissipating. But it seems to be what she expects from school. The next day, she was no less eager to bring in and share her map. I remember only 2 projects in her life that she has spent so much time and energy on. It was as though she’d finished writing a concerto and she wanted somebody besides her mother to hear it now. When I picked her up I asked her what people had said about her map. She said nobody saw it; they had all been collected in a pile somewhere, to be taken home and graded.

We’ll never know how much potential was wasted that day–30 kids coming in full of joy and pride about their work, ready to hear oohs and aahs, answer questions, discuss composition and technique, get ideas about things to try on the next project, and have the culminating experience that energizes them for the next mammoth undertaking. Their maps disappeared into a black hole. When they come back, they’ll be different;  they’ll have numbers on them.

IN SUMMARY, I believe that assessment is where the rubber meets the road in experiential education. If you are going to use arbitrary quantitative scoring systems to assign value to the kids’ experiences, if you completely fail to take into account the unique, unanticipated, perhaps unmeasurable, collateral ways that children grow through the experiences you provide, you are just a traditional school that provides lots of good field trips. If you forget to take as much care in assessment as you take in building rich experience, you reduce all of your efforts to rubble. Furthermore, you systematically erode the children’s sense of your legitimacy. I’ll bet anything I will have to sit down with Sabine and do our own evaluation of the River Map, and remind her that the numbers she brings home from Watershed have no meaning to us. (Even if she were to get the top scores, if a 3 had no meaning last week, how could a 5 have more meaning tomorrow?) I believe my kid is an ordinary student because she has come to believe that doing well at school is no more and no less than figuring out exactly what the teachers want you to do. She doesn’t trust her own judgement. In fact, she’s pretty sure her own judgment is irrelevant. She doesn’t know what she’s passionate about, and that’s irrelevant, too. She’s obedient, dutiful, and good-natured. Eventually she can probably work her scores up, if anyone figures out how to motivate her to do that. It’s entirely possible she’ll just keep accepting 2s and 3s and 4s with a shrug. Personally, I’m waiting for somebody to tap in to what comes from inside her, and help her recognize its potential. I’m waiting for somebody to give her the keys to the kingdom, and prepare her for a lifetime of discovery. I really thought it was happening at Watershed, until someone decided her experience was a 3.
MY QUESTIONS: What is our policy on Assessment?  Why do we assess the kids’ work? When is it most appropriate to assess, and when to refrain from assessment?  If we have to asses, what do we want to communicate to kids and their families through our assessments?  How can we create assessment schemes that are meaningful to the students, and empower rather than disempower them?
MY THEORY is that your teachers (and probably much of the school community) are imprisoned by an unexamined belief system developed through too many years of traditional schooling. You’ve got a fantastic staff.  They’re providing amazing experiences that I can write just as long a letter about, and I mean that. But, for all of us, unexamined beliefs built on lifetimes of experience are bound to come bubbling up–when we’re tired, when we have too many irons in the fire, when there’s pressure to conform to a more familiar model. If we’re not vigilant and purposeful, habit fills the vacuum. We let numbers take the place of feedback. We embrace arbitrary “high” standards, forgetting that all the children arrive from different starting points and bring different strengths and weaknesses. We allow ourselves to accept our culture’s assumption that children are naturally lazy and lackadaisical.
Rigor is the first word in rigor mortis. It comes from the Latin root meaning stiffness. Progressive educators aim to cultivate flexibility–not rigor. (Can’t we think of another term for the value we add?) Progressive educators believe that children are naturally inclined toward meaningful work, when their experiences are empowering. Laziness and lackadaisy are symptoms we develop from being told what to do, and how and when, and what will earn us how many stars.
TO CONCLUDE: Building a reliably progressive educational community requires a massive and consistent parent and community education effort. I’ve worked in enough Montessori schools to know that educating the kids is only a fraction of your job. You also have to establish an ongoing process of helping even the most outstanding teachers continuously recognize and dismantle the unwanted vestiges of their old-school belief systems so they can actively trust and empower the kids even when there are doubters all around. The kids will start to grow and stretch beyond our wildest imaginings only when they are convinced of our faith in their unique abilities to draw what they need from each situation. Otherwise, they will just do what we tell them.
I humbly recommend John Dewey’s tight, tiny volume Experience and Education. The work you guys are doing takes courage, because you’re swimming against  a cultural tide of wrong-headed obsession with quantifiable outcomes. Even if you’ve read them before, Dewey’s words are inspiring and encouraging, and might provide some real insight into how an assessment policy can be built to be consistent with your school’s remarkable values.

One Response to Assessment in a “Progressive School” by Chris von Lersner

  • Chris, is this you?? From Folio Z days in Atlanta? I have been searching for you for about 10 years! Please email me when you can–much to catch up on. I can’t wait to hear about the Bean!
    Take care,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *