Monday, August 5, 2013

"Evidence-based" assessments for standardized essay tests

Today's standards for K12 essays are ever more evidence-based--not necessarily in their underlying rationale, but in their notion of what students should be doing. Over Internet-based homework assignments and writing rubrics, citations of "Cite three pieces of evidence" (and the like) are ever more numerous. They infuse state k12 proficiency tests, as well as the new Common Core Standards.

Particularly committed to such "evidence-based" measures is former CCS co-author and current College Board president David Coleman. As this week's Education Times reports:

Over and over, Mr. Coleman returns to the need to prod students into marshaling their evidence. “The heart of the revised SAT will be analyzing evidence,” he said.
But in the cut and paste world in which too many students and teachers operate, a failure to marshal "evidence" is not the heart of the problem. Key word Internet searches will turn up all sorts of "evidence" for all sorts of conclusions, however implausible. The Internet, as well all know, offers "evidence" for pretty much anything under the sun, from pseudoscience to conspiracy theories to joke claims to the -isms of every imaginable prejudice.

Given the state of the Internet, and of contemporary Edworld culture, the problem today's students have with writing and argumentation isn't primarily a failure to cite "evidence." Rather, it's a failure find the best evidence, to analyze that evidence in depth, to track down and take on the most compelling counter-evidence, and to make clear and convincing cases against reasonable (actual or possible) counter-arguments.

These requisites lie at the heart of good essay writing; they're also the most challenging things to execute. And they're the among most challenging things to teach and to grade. For all Mr. Coleman's aspirations for "improved" assessments, the grading challenge is particularly prohibitive when what's being graded are millions of essays for state tests or the College Board--whether the graders are exhausted human beings or automated text-processing software programs that know even less than students do about real-world evidence and argumentation.

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