Cheshire cats, standards and tests

“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”

The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” Alice answered.

“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When writing a robotics program we will usually have a loop. It’s goal would be to repeatedly take readings from the sensors so the robot can track the changes in the environment and react accordingly. Even a simple task like turning 90 degrees would requires such a loop. This constant measurement it’s the main building block used in control systems, designed to minimize the error between a set target and the current value.

If we want the robot to turn 90 degrees, then 90 degrees would be our set target. Once the robot starts moving we constantly measure the readings from the gyro sensor (that can measure the degree of turn). Once the set and current values match, we would tell the robot to stop. usually , as the the error is decreased, we would want the robot to slow down so that it would stop at exactly 90 degrees. Being able to measure the progress of the robot while in progress makes the robot so much more accurate and effective.

Then why is it not like this in education? Why on God’s green earth, do we ‘measure” the achievements of our students only after the learning is over? When there is little or no room for making adjustments.

Changing the paradigm of education

The answer to the question asked in the previous paragraph is complex, or there wouldn’t be a blog post about it. There are a couple of reasons:

  1. The on going assumption is that our students naturally spread out nicely on a bell curve. We need a few low grades and a few high ones to keep that bell ringing. It just seems redundant to constantly measure the progress of our students when there are students that will always perform better, or worse, than the most. So why try?
  2. It sounds like a lot of work.

What we have are standards tests and summative assessments that help us ring that bell and see the beauty of nature as it determines the future of our kids.  

We should be brave enough to try something else. Mostly because what we have doesn’t work. All those tests and bell curves,  are they really the answer? are they the road or the destination?  TMHO, the tests are no longer part of the road, they are the destination, and that doesn’t really help our kids.

Those absolute bars, shared by all, aligned to by all, are only good when populating bell curves. What we need is another point of view, that looks at the individual process and the personal progress a student is making, and no, this is not about adaptive learning (or is it?).

Johnny and Pete started 1st grade. Pete already knew how to read and write. His parents invested a lot of time and effort, but during 1st grade he made little progress. Johnny, on the other hand, had to learn that in school. By the end of 1st grade he was able to read and write just as good as Pete. While absolute measurements, through summative assessments, tells us these kids belong one next to the other on the bell curve, formative assessment would show us Johnny made great progress throughout the year, while Pete was not able to make much. Notice this is just an observation, not judgment.

Important things to consider about evaluating progress in education

1. Summative assessment

Summative assessments provide absolute measurements, emphasizing the distance the student has yet to go. A grade of 60 means 40 point behind. It may feel relative but the destination is fixed and shared by all.

Summative assessments are very judgmental, a C student is not an A student. They not only affect the student’s self esteem and efficacy, but are also non actionable. Summative tests usually come after the learning phase, leaving the teacher and the student with very little options. That is why C students will usually remain C students.

2. Formative assessment

Formative assessments provide incremental readings of a student’s progress resulting in a relative reading per student, showing the teacher how progress the student was able to achieve.

Formative assessments are less judgmental as they focus on showing the incremental progress made, providing the teacher with actionable insights,  so one can do better in the summative test.

3. Tests

Formative tests usually asks the student for his opinion and then to support it, making the student more involved and active.

Summative tests are asking for knowledge. “Do you know what…?” That is not as engaging as “Do you think that…

Tying ropes around adaptive learning

All what’s mentioned before sounds great, and it is (I believe so). Utilizing both formative and summative assessment can help the teacher “control” the learning process, just like we want the robot to slow down as it nears its target. The incremental measurements of a student’s progress shows the teachers who needs help and with what. Making it possible for a student to reach its potential.

green apple and ipad

And isn’t formative assessment like adaptive learning?

No. Adaptive learning looks at an entire learning process and customize it per student. They call it personalized but it’s all machine learning and stuff. Nothing personal.

Formative assessment, while can be part of adaptive learning, focuses on the incremental measurement. This is useful in both adaptive learning environments and common teacher lead classes.

So what do Cheshire cats have to do with adaptive learning?

Nothing. Other than that we are all mad here thinking we can do better just by measuring student achievements without leaving room for improvements. If we want to get somewhere we need to say it out loud and keep that in mind constantly measuring our progress. Just like a robot.


About the author

Adi Shmorak - CoderZAdi Shmorak

Jerusalem, Israel.

Innovation Manager, Intelitek

Director of Product, CoderZ

Father of 4 wonderful children



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