Confronting our Fear of Assessment


Our discomfort with assessment is understandable.   Although the term itself is neutral with regard to judgment, it’s become inexorably linked to issues of quality, compliance, and punitive measures. Perhaps at the core of these associations is the sense that assessment is an external process imposed by those who are on the outside, wielding their power and resources to determine our respective fate.

Interestingly, the notion of internal assessment, or self-assessment, lacks the same fear-provoking effect.  That is, as long as it’s perceived to be led “by” and “for” ourselves, with no high-stakes outcomes attached.  Internal assessments that are truly formative in nature, intended to support our own growth and development, are actually seen as beneficial and are often welcomed or even sought out in the form of consultants, workshops, or self-help books.  These approaches encourage us to set and clarify goals, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and develop strategies and frameworks to keep us on track.

For many, these two categories seem like night and day, and what we would pay for the latter – in the form of personal or professional development, we would gladly hand over to avoid the former.

I find this distinction fascinating, since most assessments, even the imposed variety, necessitate or even support the internal formative kind.  Accreditation, reviews, state tests, or virtually any systems-wide evaluation programs are designed to ensure and check internal quality control systems by imposing standards, targets, or set expectations.  These assessments that are tied to compliance or incentivization do not- or should not- in any way take the place of internal assessments. 

To me, the total reliance on external measures to evaluate one’s success or impact is unfathomable.  It makes me think of the proverbial woman who determines her worth and happiness by whether she is appreciated by her spouse.  By waiting for validation through external assessment, we are in essence giving away our power and condemning ourselves to eternal vulnerability.

And yet I continue to see organizations that point solely to compliance measures as evidence of their own efficacy and impact.  Ironically, when those measures are less than flattering, the organizations cry unfair and point to the limitations of the evaluation methods themselves. And when the results are laudatory they hold them up as evidence of their success.

It is clear that high-stakes assessments are not going away, especially in areas that scream for improvement and reform. But basing our systems solely on the external standards and expectations imposed on us will not lead us to the improvement that we seek, nor will focusing on the assessments themselves.   

There is simply no way around the work of clarifying our core beliefs, expectations, and commitments.  Once we can articulate and feel these in a way that is meaningful and real, we will naturally want to know if we are actualizing what we intend.  We will be able to see evidence of our impact in numerous ways, as well as opportunities to improve and evolve.

Once we achieve this level of clarity and cohesiveness, assessment will feel like the formative tool that it is meant to be, and fear can finally disappear from the equation.

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