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Don’t Grade With a Red Pen

“Good teaching constantly asks about old understandings in new ways, calls for new applications, and draws new connections.  And good assessment does the same.”

Dr. Lorrie Shepard, Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

I attended the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.  Our friends did a great job of videotaping the event, and I recently was in the process of transferring the memories from VCR to DVD when I discovered something.  It was Apolo Ono’s first Olympics.  I didn’t know who he really was then, but eight years later he stole the show.  And there was Al Roker.  ALL of Al Roker who is now but a shadow of a man that he was then.  What transformed these two men in the past eight years could be thought of as very separate events.  In actuality, they are both living examples of the role of assessment in a learning culture.

Dr. Lorrie Shepard is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Her area of specialization is psychometrics and the uses and misuses of tests (and red pens) in educational settings.  Her article, “The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture,” was referenced by Lyn Corno in another compelling article, “On Teaching Adaptively,” which outlines a new direction for adaptive teaching theory.  What I discovered about Dr. Shepard, as the result of further investigating her work, is that she not only is a researcher, but a practitioner.  In the teacher education program, she teaches assessment in collaboration with colleagues in content methods courses.

So what does this have to do with Apolo Ono and Al Roker?  Dr. Shepard’s social-constructivist-conceptual framework is based on an emerging paradigm that is characterized by a reformed vision of curriculum, supported by cognitive and constructivist learning theories AND assessment.  Her theme is “good assessment tasks are interchangeable with good instructional tasks.”  Apolo One and Al Roker may not have been in a traditional classroom box, but they certainly prove the tenants of a paradigm that blends learning with assessment.  Each had a challenging, interdisciplinary curriculum, one in skating/athletics and one in health/fitness, that required much more than memorizing and book learning.  Neither could learn in a vacuum.  Their learning built upon previous knowledge and understanding and constant self assessment that supported their learning and success and challenged them to continue in new ways.  This is what Dr. Shepard and many educators that share her philosophy aspire to impart every day.

The red pen is the symbol of the 20th century educational paradigm.  The red pen indicates on a recall, completion, matching, multiple choice or essay test what you did wrong.  The red pen isn’t used during instruction, only during ‘evaluation.’   A red pen is a form of measurement.  I believe it wasn’t a red pen that transformed Apolo Ono or Al Roker over the past eight years.  I believe it was asking about old understandings in new ways, calling for new applications, and drawing new connections.


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