What is learning and what part does evaluation play in learning?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the high stakes testing environment that most schools across the country and especially those in New York State have had to endure. I’ve been thinking too about the new teacher evaluations which use results of those tests to evaluate teachers. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my own learning, my teaching and what I believe constitutes authentic and useful evaluation and how those instruments have shaped my own educational experience.

Learning really involves a series of repeated trials to produce a result that is acceptable to the learner and results in an improved state for that learner. All learning follows this continuum. Learning progresses through various stages and understanding those stages and the progress of the learner can be aided by certain types of tests and testing. Testing ought to inform both the instructor and the learner so that both know when the learner is ready to progress to the next stage. Testing ought not be a stress to the learner. Recording scores that may be useful to evaluate a learner should only be used to assess how much additional help or information is needed by a learner in order to progress to the next stage of learning. In no case should test scores be used to rank order individuals or to embarrass them in any way. Using test scores in this way only serves to increase stress for the learner. 

Benchmarks are important to establish minimum competencies necessary to fulfill certain responsibilities for licensing. For example a general aviation pilot is required to complete a certain number of hours of instruction to be able to be licensed as a pilot. When I obtained my own 3rd class airman certificate from the FAA  I was required to have a minimum of 40 hours of instruction and I was required to pass a written examination and a check ride in the aircraft I had learned to fly. I was not penalized because it actually took me nearly 80 hours of instruction and my instructor was not evaluated negatively because it took me more than the minimum number of hours.  There were many evaluations along the way to my licensure and they served to assist me in my goal of getting a pilots license but in no case was I penalized for the length of time it took nor was my instructor evaluated negatively. 

Therefore I believe that today’s test agenda and teacher and principal evaluations based on test results are  based on false premises and can only result in more failing children, failing schools, demoralized teachers and administrators.