________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 2 . . . . September 14, 2007


Evaluating Students: How Teachers Justify and Defend Their Marks to Parents, Students, and Principals.

Alex Shirran.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2006.
96 pp., pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-55138-206-7.

Subject Heading:
Grading and marking (students).


Review by Pat Sadowy.

**½ /4       

In today’s climate of accountability, the evaluation of students is very important. Students, parents, and school administrators often measure the value of teachers by means of the quality of their student evaluation. In this short volume, Shirran, a teacher with 15 years of experiences, outlines many key points concerning student evaluation. He begins with “Three Conditions of Marking,” discusses “Course Goals and Objectives” in his longest chapter, then covers “Calculating Letter Grades,” “Constructing Valid Tests,” and “Standardized Tests.” His final chapter addresses “Evaluation Complaints” as made by students and their parents. A short bibliography and a detailed index complete the volume.

     This book contains a lot of useful information. Some of it, though, may be limited in its usefulness. For example, a teacher wanting to construct valid tests might not be able to do so merely by reading this chapter. Besides needing to engage in some trial and error, the teacher might require further reading on the topic or consultation with colleagues or administrators for advice. Clearly, though, Shirran’s work will help teachers set off in productive directions. His intent is to be supportive, and he fulfills that. For example, along with his discussion of a “table of specifications” (p. 51) as an essential step prior to test construction, Shirran provides an example of a completed table (p. 52) and a full-page blank table which is reproducible (p. 62).

     In spite of his attempts at utility, I was somewhat unclear as to his intended audience. If the book is intended primarily for experienced teachers, then much of the content seems extraneous. Does an experienced teacher need to be advised to “thoroughly read and be familiar with the curriculum guide and the goals for the course or subject” (p. 22)? Does that teacher need to see a one-page outline of a unit plan (p. 27) or be provided with blank, reproducible outlines for lesson plans and unit plans (pp. 36-37)? It seems to me that understanding in such areas would be automatic for established teachers; however, the amount of material that Shirran provides is insufficient for a preservice teacher to understand a concept or follow a practice fully. I assume his intent must be a balance between reminding teachers of key ideas to which they may not be paying enough attention and whetting their appetites for some new ideas.

     In his discussion of the basic components of evaluation, with which Shirran begins the book, he includes a) a stated criteria level; b) the academic level of thought; and c) a statement of conditions (p. 5). These components are not unreasonable, but I wonder about his second one: he devotes almost six pages to it, and it is, in essence, little more than a reiterating of Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomies, the cognitive and the psychomotor. Bloom was an educational psychologist who published his classifications of educational objectives in the late 1950s. Nowhere does Shirran credit Bloom (nor any of the researchers who followed up on Bloom’s work) for this content, and nowhere does he address the fact that these levels are half a century old. Why does he consider them useful still today? What aspects of our pedagogical understandings have changed since Bloom’s work first appeared?

     Another limitation is the overall narrowness of the scope of the volume. Shirran does make it clear that he is concerned with evaluation. He does not explicitly differentiate between assessment and evaluation and is most explicitly concerned with summative evaluation and reporting. He provides little direction to teachers concerning formative assessment strategies or record keeping. The terrain in which he works is almost exclusively that of marks. This may be because his focus is on older students: about a third of his examples come from middle years contexts (grades 5 - 8) and the rest are Senior years contexts (grades 9 - 12). It may also be because his focus is on existing, traditional practice. Anyone interested in how to gauge learning by means of observation or by portfolio artifacts and annotations will have to look elsewhere, as will those interested in peer- or self-evaluation or the evaluation of group work.

     All teachers can benefit, though, from considering the points Shirran raises in his final chapter, “Evaluation Complaints.” Here he suggests the motivation for his writing the entire book as he tackles the tension of pedagogy as it mixes with politics, in particular, how teachers can best cope with the (often valid) parental complaints about evaluation and the role administrators serve in mediating evaluation concerns. While straying somewhat from the goal of evaluating students, it is in this chapter that Shirran overtly addresses his book’s subtitle. He provides a serviceable list of “The Characteristics of the Effective Teacher” (20 annotated items; pp. 82-86) and balances it with “The Characteristics of the Effective Student” (10 annotated items; pp. 86-89). These can serve students, parents, and administrators as checklists or as discussion or reflection points.

     All in all, Shirran’s work will have some interest and usefulness for established teachers, preservice teachers, teacher educators, school administrators, and parents in middle and senior years settings. I am confident that this book would lead most teachers to make some strategic changes to their evaluation practices. The clear, example case studies Shirran includes to illustrate his points could elicit engaged conversations in preservice classrooms, staff meetings, or parent council meetings.


Pat Sadowy is a Senior Instructor at the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba, where she teaches curriculum and instruction courses in language and literacy at the middle years level.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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