Appropriate Assessment for
What are Assessment and Evaluation?
Should Environmental Educators be
|Source: Stimpson, P. (1995) The Assessment of Learning within Environmental Education, Learning for a Sustainable Environment: Innovations in Teacher Education Through Environmental Education, UNESCO Asia-Pacific Centre of Educational Innovation for Development, Bangkok, draft module.|
Assessment in environmental education is concerned with the systematic collecting and recording of evidence of pupil learning. There is one view that, in personal and social education of which environmental education is a part, assessment is inappropriate. Protagonists emphasise the negative effects of assessment. They stress, in particular, the demotivational influence which 'failure' brings and the way assessment encourages a narrowing of the implemented curriculum.
They (examinations) are charged with overloading students with work, raising anxieties in students and their families, depersonalising schooling, discouraging creativity and supporting credentialism and 'the diploma disease'. The examinations are said to hinder school and teacher initiated innovation, restrict teachers' professional autonomy, and act as barriers to the correction of these alleged defects (Eckstein and Noah, 1992, p.149).
Many of the past assessment practices which environmental educators have to evaluate for use in EE laid themselves open to such criticism. Moreover, the emphasis seemed to concentrate upon what children did not know rather than on what children had gained. However, this is not inevitable. The argument for assessment is that, whenever learning takes place, it is only proper that children, teachers, parents, etc. are provided with evidence about gains. Environmental learning is no different from other areas in this respect. Information is needed for decision making by students, teachers and others.
If we are to improve the quality of teaching and learning in environmental education it is important to assess students' achievements and experiences in this area (World Wide Fund for Nature, 1994, p.35.).
Most teachers would concur with Rowntree (1987) who notes that "The spirit and style of student assessment defines the de facto curriculum." Thus, assessment practices are needed which support the demands put on teachers and students alike. Assessment needs to be seen not just as an end in itself but also as an integral part of the teaching and learning process. (Note: some authors argue that assessment should have virtually no role outside of classroom practices but this is to ignore many of the realities.)
The infusion of EE into mainstream school subjects renders it important that environmental educators do not ignore the challenge of assessment. Traditional tests and examinations, however, are often restricted in nature and thus in the type of conclusions teachers are able to reach about environmental learning. A focus on the more general term 'assessment' emphasises a curriculum spirit (to quote Rowntree) which is broad and which is multi-faceted. It also implies a multi-faceted approach to the collection of evidence of pupil achievement. The need is clear in EE with its focus on knowledge, skills, attitudes and action.
The question of formative or summative assessment in EE is an important
one. Traditional discussions of assessment tended to emphasise, albeit
by implication, summative assessment. This is assessment which usually
occurs at or towards the end of learning in order to describe the standard
reached by the learner. It is a final summing up of environmental learning.
Often this takes place in order that appropriate decisions about future
learning or job suitability can be made. The judgements which are derived
from summative assessment are generally, in the first instance, for the
benefit of people other than the learner. As a basis for resource allocation,
attention is often placed on the consistency with which examiners are
able to discriminate between students. Hence the concentration is on finding
out what people can not do rather than on what they can. It is perhaps
not surprising that summative assessment of this kind is often berated
by commentators and, being largely divorced from the classroom practicalities
of the environmental curriculum, is seen to offer little support for learning
or feedback to the learner.
Formative assessment of environmental learning involves different intentions and refers to the ongoing forms of assessment which are closely linked to the learning process. It is characteristically informal, although when public examination pressure is high, formative assessment may at times ape summative assessment. Nevertheless, when assessment is intended as 'the helpful servant of the environmental curriculum', formative assessment assumes more importance in its own right.
Clearly both summative and formative assessment have a role to play in
EE, particularly in a cross-curricular context where environmental learning
is infused into traditional subjects. Problems arise when summative public
examinations are allowed to dominate. The search for reliability produces
a tendency to narrow the assessment focus. We thus come back to Rowntree
- the issue is not one of summative or formative assessment but rather
of the 'spirit' and perspective in which assessment is seen. Consequently,
there is a move towards assessment strategies which seek to be diagnostic
and support learning as well as providing terminal grades.
The question which follows is whether, in reality, it is possible to have a framework which has both summative and formative functions. Can the tensions between the drive for reliability in summative assessment and the search for validity in formative assessment adequately be resolved?
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was considerable concern (as voiced by Holt in Workshop Resource Sheet 3) that many of the ills of the education system could be laid at the door of assessment practices. The influences of formal public examinations came in for particular criticism. Most commentators today would agree with many of those critics; however, many would disagree with the inevitability which seems implicit in Holt's comments.
The educational debates of the period lead to a number of liberal reforms
which supported a softening of assessment. However, increasing economic
uncertainty, particularly in the advanced industrialised countries of
the West, led to cries for educational reform once again. Assessment,
within a 'Fordist' mechanistic view of education, was seen as a means
to establish standards and as a basis for accountability. The assessment
problem was seen as one of developing measuring tools and strategies which
would avoid the earlier problems. Consequently, the 1980s and 1990s saw
considerable effort being put into research and development projects to
create assessment approaches which would minimise negative effects and
Eckstein, M. A. and Noah, H. J. (1992) Examinations: Comparative
and International Studies, Pergammon, Oxford.
Rowntree, D. (1977) Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them?
Harper Row, London.
World Wide Fund for Nature (UK) (1993) Planning and Evaluation of
Environmental Education, WWF, London.
Rowntree, D. (1977) Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them? Harper Row, London.
World Wide Fund for Nature (UK) (1993) Planning and Evaluation of Environmental Education, WWF, London.