The story of Dr. Apgar's test is an important lesson.
On the face of it, the Apgar test is ludicrously simplistic. In theory, a baby could have no pulse but still score a perfectly healthy 8.
But the Apgar test is good enough. And more importantly, it's better than nothing. Because that's what doctors used to have.
In the book Better, my man crush Atul Gawande states, "the score turned an intangible and impressionistic concept—the condition of new babies—into numbers that people could collect and compare (p. 187)."
Basically, doctors now could tinker and gather the results to see what worked. There's a lovely passage about how doctors are supposed to be "evidence-based" but in obstetrics the doctors just tried stuff out and looked to see if results improved.
They had a number and if it went up, they knew they probably did something good. If it went down, then back to the drawing board. Before the Apgar test, 1 in 30 newborns died at birth. Now, it's 1 in 500 (p. 187).
Gawande also points out that the number of Cesareans has increased dramatically. In part, because of that all important Apgar score. He uses the phrase "tyranny to the score" here, which I love. Doctors, being the type A overachievers that they are, seek to maximize their score as much as possible. Sometimes they do so at the expense of other considerations. Again, quoting, "While we rate the newborn child's health, the mother's pain and blood loss and length of recovering seem to count for little. We have no score for how the mother does....(p. 198)" Being the good
So what do I take from all this? I used to spend hours creating and revising the perfect assessment. I'd stress about word choice. I'd wonder if I was giving too much away or not enough info. I'd try for that perfect balance of academic vocab and accessible language. I'd try to cram in 60 questions in 50 minutes or have them write a full lab report in complete silence.
Except that there aren't any perfect assessments. What's perfect for Student A is highly flawed for Student B. It does not exist. But there are certainly better and worse assessments. So like the Apgar test, I try to make my assessments good enough. Multiple "pretty good" assessments give a more complete picture than any single "great" one possibly can.1 And NEVER EVER let any one score dictate everything.
1: Falling in love with a single assessment, lesson, lab, demo, whatever... is one of the cardinal sins that very good teachers make. I know I can become enamored with a lab and stop being critical of it and working to improve. I start to think it does more than it actually does. And yes, I try to work to keep my SBG love in check.
PS - I've gotten more out of the Atul Gawande's books than any other of the "not in education" gurus we end up reading, like Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell or Jim Collins. I keep meaning to blog about the chapter he wrote on cystic fibrosis care. Best chapter ever. Go to the library this weekend and read it. The chapter is titled The Bell Curve and it will burrow deep into your brain.