The Stories We Planted

by: Dr. Paige Fisher, Vancouver Island University ([email protected])

In our zeal to envision and actualize school effectiveness and improvement, we spend much time and energy propounding the benefits of this initiative or that, as measured by statistical reports that communicate, in easily accessible symbolic terms, the results of our evaluations of student achievement. This researcher?s work seeks to remind us that, although these measurements are widely accepted as evidence, the processes of assigning symbols to student achievement mask the reality that assessment and evaluation are very complex and very human processes.

The necessity of measuring student achievement has become one of ?our most cherished articles of faith? (ICSEI, 2011), yet the notion that there are living, breathing, feeling humans at the centre of our statistics is often lost in the discourse around school improvement. Measurement processes are rarely called into question, yet one of their impacts is that they have a significant influence on what each student decides is her personal value. In reality it is very difficult for all of us to make distinctions between measurements applied to products of our work and measurements applied to our selves.  In the series of moments that make up the story of our school life, it is the self that is either valued or devalued as we e-value-ate and are e-value-ated.

In this study, the researcher combines auto-ethnographies of successful school experience with narratives of students who experienced significant failure in school. When read against the literature relating to the impacts of assessment and evaluation processes on student sense of self, the narratives facilitate an exploration of notions of success and failure as they are conceptualized in school settings.  Evaluative assessment experiences can be examined as the seeds of the ?story of the self? that is planted in each of us as we move through our school years.

The series of narratives begins with a scene in which the researcher, as a beginning teacher, struggles to reconcile the tensions between seeking to support a struggling student and the institutional necessity of recording failing grades on her report card:

? As part of my teacher training at the university, I was taught all about accurate scoring, the science of test construction and the bell curve. My mentors and fellow teachers admonished me to mark absolutely everything. This way, they promised, I can be sure of my ability to justify the letter grades I give my students. I?ve created and marked examinations, quizzes, projects, and assignments all for the purpose of gathering evidence for this moment, writing the report cards.

When I look along the long row of scores I have for Alice, I see them neatly laid out, 5/10, 12/20, 4/10, 13/30 and so on. No matter how many times I add and average with my calculator, I end up with the same dismal averages ? 52% in Math, 55% in Language Arts, 48% in Social Studies. I have to reassure myself that the numbers in the book don?t lie. If I?ve kept faithful records – and I have – then she?s earned these scores. Even though I?ve spent all term encouraging Alice, helping her to see the things she is learning to do, I am forced to record C-, D, and F into my book. The numbers don?t lie. My colleagues would tell me to rely on my judgment. This student is below average, that?s all there is to it. I have to fail her.

Although I tell myself these things, I can?t help but feel sick about the whole process. My palms are sweating, my stomach is churning, and I feel hot right up through the roots of my hair.  Reluctantly, I write the symbols on the front of the report card and try to write encouraging comments on the back. I can?t get her face out of my mind – the look of disbelief I expect I?ll see when she looks at her report card. Or will it be a look of resignation?  I sigh deeply, put her books away, and gather the materials to calculate grades for the next student.

This narrative inspired the researcher to seek to understand the experiences of students like Alice through their narratives of school failure. One such student was Amber:

Report card time was a real treat. You?d get the report card in class, look at it, and see, ?You need to apply yourself more.??Okay, well, whatever.?, I?d think, then stuff it in my bag and take it home. I worried about what my Dad would say because I didn?t want to disappoint him. My parents would finally ask for it, and I?d drag the crumpled report card out of my bag, give it to them and stand there and sigh, and think, ?Oh boy. Here we go again.? Basically, they all said pretty much the same thing, ?She?s a nice quiet student and she could apply herself more.? followed by a lot of E?s and F?s. 

My Mom would just joke about it. She knew I had a problem and was probably trying to make me feel better. She?d say, ?Oh honey, E is for Effort and F is for Fabulous!? My Dad was disgusted with the fact that here I wasn?t getting it and I was trying my best. You know, every parent wants their child to be perfect. He looked at me one time and just said, ?You are such a failure.?

?Well?, I thought to myself. ?Okay well fine I?ll be a failure then if that?s what you think of me – I?ll live up to your standards Dad!?

The larger collection of narratives of school success and failure within this study reveals fascinating similarities among the ways that each participants? story of the self was powerfully influenced by evaluative school experiences. What does it mean to measure and be measured? Are there circumstances under which it is essential that we allow others to attribute a symbolic value to who we are? Are there ways that we can remind researchers, policy makers and practitioners to consider the hopeful prospect of schools where each and every student could be treated with the nurturing and respect that creates conditions for them to flourish and to thrive? If so, the story that would be planted within each student could be a story of possibility rather than one of judgment.


ICSEI Conference 2011