Academic journal article Human Organization

Assessment as Practice: Notes on Measures, Tests, and Targets

Academic journal article Human Organization

Assessment as Practice: Notes on Measures, Tests, and Targets

Article excerpt

Drawing on data from workplace and learning studies that we have conducted over the past 20 years, we propose to rethink assessment by developing a three-part framework that puts assessments into a broader social context. The framework identifies inherent assessments as happening informally and nonverbally in all social situations; discursive assessments as occurring when members of a social group talk about what they are doing in an evaluative way; and documentary assessments as coming about when activities are evaluated according to a scheme that produces numbers and symbols. Formal, documentary assessments are ubiquitous in all arenas of modern life, from production work to corporate strategy, governmental resource allocation, and educational policy. However, they frequently have negative consequences which remain largely unexamined, in the literature as well as in the daily practice of managers and decision makers. We show that an overreliance on documentary assessments can lead to far-reaching dysfunctional effects on work practices, on corporate decision making, and on the structure and culture of an organization. In the final part of the paper, we apply our three-part assessment framework to propose a set of recommendations for managers and researchers that promise to lead to the improvement of assessment practice.

Key words: assessment, evaluation, side effects, accounting, organizational culture

There are two equally important observations that emanate from our work on learning and assessment at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL): 1) assessment is a normal, ubiquitous part of all social interaction; and 2) formal assessment methods as used in organizations frequently lead to undesirable results.

These observations are not of a kind. They are like dinosaurs and humans, both bipedal but otherwise occupying rather distinct life spheres. Nevertheless, we might learn something by considering them together. It may just be the case that part of the problem with assessment is precisely that the first observation has not been taken seriously. In this paper we will talk about both and attempt to draw out their importance for rethinking assessment in workplaces and schools. The central proposition here is that, in addition to the standard tests and performance measurements that are routinely administered in our institutions, there are other important forms of assessment that are not usually recognized. These can give us valuable insights and provide leverage for restructuring the way assessment systems are designed.

What emerges out of our work is a framework that complements and amplifies recent thinking around measurement practice, puts formal assessment in perspective, and recognizes it as only one piece (albeit a significant one) of the varieties of judgments about performance that play a crucial role in schools, work places, and everyday life.

Throughout the paper we use the general term "assessment" to comprehensively refer to the totality of informal and formal judgments, evaluations, measurements, tests, surveys, and metrics that play a role in productive social interaction. We start our discussion with a characterization of two kinds of assessments that are produced on the fly, as natural parts of mundane social activities by individuals and groups: inherent assessments and discursive assessments. We then contrast these with formal, standardized measurements used in organizations, which we call documentary assessments. We will show how each of these three assessment types plays a distinct role in articulating the work of individuals and groups on various levels. We will also show how formal, documentary assessments regularly produce dysfunctional behavioral effects because they are disconnected or in opposition to the intrinsic requirements of everyday work practices. In a final section, we will suggest implications for further research in the organizational practice of assessments and provide recommendations to managers for the improvement of assessment practice. …

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