Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Writing Assessment in Six Lessons-From "American Idol": Taking a Cue from Reality Television Shows May Help Educators Improve Assessments

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Writing Assessment in Six Lessons-From "American Idol": Taking a Cue from Reality Television Shows May Help Educators Improve Assessments

Article excerpt

Groans reverberate through the classroom as half my students realize that they've been trapped by their own rubrics. Each year, this activity is my favorite moment in the Foundations of Assessment course that I teach at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. The activity itself is a simple one: Design a rubric that you can use to evaluate the performance of contestants on the "The X-Factor." The groans were from students who realized that, in spite of their best intentions, the rigorous application of their rubrics forced them to pass Geo Godly onto the next stage of "The X-Factor," even though they knew this was the wrong decision. Godly was a contestant who exposed himself on stage during his live audition. What trapped students into their bad decision was that the rubrics they used to describe excellence contained such keywords as memorable, confident, and strong stage presence. Godly demonstrated confidence, strong stage presence, and he created a memorable audition. He wasn't a particularly strong singer nor was his performance memorable for the right reasons, but my groaning students' rubrics failed to emphasize these qualities and consequently trapped them into a poor decision.

I use this activity to open a discussion about the assessment literature my students have been reading in the course. A problem with the burgeoning literature about classroom assessment is similar to the problem that has made large-scale assessment so damaging in many educational contexts. The literature presupposes that "best practices" in assessment are equally valid across a wide range of educational and disciplinary contexts. This technocentric approach to assessment focuses on narrow methods of achieving validity and reliability, and it depends primarily on traditional assessment tools such as multiple-choice items and timed impromptu response formats for its designs (Huot, 2002).

The reality, however, is quite the opposite: Good assessment practices are contextual, designed in accordance with expert knowledge, and derived from and responsive to the contexts in which they are employed (Gallagher & Turley, 2012). What constitutes good assessment in science does not necessarily translate to good assessment of writing, fine arts, or physical education. The sooner those of us who design assessments, who teach assessment courses, and who theorize around assessment practices realize this, the sooner we can make important strides in improving assessment practices.

Lessons in assessment

Consider what "American Idol" tells us about assessment. Educators might balk at the idea that a reality TV show can offer anything of value to our work, but each year as I run my "X-Factor" assessment activity, I see more of what these programs reveal about effective assessment practices.

The purpose of reality TV shows like "American Idol," "The Voice," and "The X-Factor" is to identify and cultivate talent. This goal is similar, though narrower, to the purpose of schooling. Granted, there is not a perfect parallel between the two. Schools serve a much broader range of individuals and subject areas. And, unlike these reality TV shows, schools do not have the luxury of eliminating 99% of their students in the first few weeks of the school year so they can focus on the top 20 students who show the most promise. Nor can schools let the public be the final arbiters of student grades.

It is difficult to argue against the success with which "American Idol" delivers on its purpose. As of 2013, finalists on the show have collectively garnered 11 Grammys and one Oscar. The show has spawned over 345 Billboard Hot 100 songs, and, in 2007, "Idol" alumni were collectively responsible for 2.1% of album sales worldwide. There are many reasons for this success, but the show's capacity to assess and cultivate talent is one of them.

Lesson #1: Multiple performances provide many ways to demonstrate quality and growth. …

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