My View

In Defense of Assessment: A Food Metaphor
By PAUL S. FREEMAN/School Administrator, March 2020

TEN YEARS AGO, Michael Pollan argued in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto that our eating behaviors have become worse than misguided. They are downright harmful.

Re-reading his book recently, I found myself thinking not about food but about the way we assess our students’ performance in schools. I recognized a metaphor for my frustrations with assessment and grading and realized as educators, we can learn from what Pollan has to say.

In a time of over-assessment as well as Pollan’s notion of “overnutrition,” our assessment practices have become like our eating habits: a consumption of low-value data rather than a thoughtful diet of valuable evidence. Just as Pollan claims most of our diet is made up of high-calorie, low-nourishment “edible foodlike substances,” educators too often have come to rely on high-frequency, low-value, scorable assessment-like events.

As nutritionists have reduced our understanding of complex, whole foods to simplistic lists of nutrients, our educational culture has focused on discrete subjects, skills and bits of knowledge to be memorized. Assessment has become an activity distinct from instruction and learning, and tools such as scoring machines and electronic gradebooks have driven a focus on ease and quantity of assessment over depth and quality.

Just as we now see children both obese and malnourished, according to Pollan, educators now heft gradebooks fattened with meaningless scores that shed little understanding on students’ thinking and learning. We are both weighted down and underinformed by the data we collect from our most prevalent assessment practices.

Parallel Prescriptions
Pollan, a Harvard professor who writes extensively about food, proposes a simple prescription to address his concerns: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” And here is where his work as a metaphor for assessment rings most clearly. A parallel prescription: “Use assessments, not too many, mostly formative.”

Pollan believes most of what we eat no longer qualifies as food. “Taking food’s place on the shelves has been an unending stream of foodlike substitutes,” he writes.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of the over-processed, low-value, assessment-like substitutes taking the place of quality assessments in our practice. We must take caution to use well-prepared, actual assessments, not prepackaged, assessment-like substitutes.

Pollan urges us to shorten our food chains, arguing that locally sourced foods grown in healthy soils are better for us. The same applies to assessments. Those designed in-school, by well-resourced expert teachers, are likely to be better aligned to identified standards, outcomes and instructional practices.

He also draws a contrast between quantity and quality while not simply advocating greater willpower to cut our caloric intake. Pollan argues that processed foods more reliant on taste (engineered to trick our senses, like diet sodas) and less nutrient dense, fool our bodies into telling our brains, inaccurately, that we need to consume more.

Our over-reliance on low-quality assessments and the related expectations created by electronic gradebooks have created a similar dynamic in assessment and grading practices. 

Fast, low-quality assessments that tell us little only create a perceived need for more assessments, whereas, if we commit ourselves to fewer, higher-quality measures, we would understand more about students’ learning and would, therefore, feel less demand to produce evermore low-quality measures to fill those gradebooks.

Formative Benefits
Pollan finally notes that while there are many ways to eat healthily, one of the simplest is to “eat mostly plants.”

Just as some foods are inherently better than others, formative assessments, properly done, are simply more beneficial than others and should be used more than other forms of assessment. What education researcher Lorrie Shepard defines as “assessment(s) carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning” are inherently more likely to nurture healthy learning than other forms of assessment.

Assessment, like nutrition, is too complex to be reduced to a simplistic practice. A more holistic understanding of instruction and assessment, as an integrated process, is required if we are to develop a more balanced assessment diet and healthier instructional habits.

PAUL FREEMAN is superintendent of the Guilford Public Schools in Guilford, Conn.