Sweeping Aside the Clutter of Evidence

Data’s tenuous place in the age of loud and certain conviction.

These days we collect and analyse data, look for trends, and use the results to bring to shame, pass the blame and assign accountability.

In some countries, in some towns, in some schools, reputations, national pride, self-esteem, and self-worth are ascribed based on the placement on the percentile line.

Time was, assessments were used to get at what a kid thought and could do, how they thought or understood.

My favorite assessment of all time allows a great deal of insight into a child’s number sense, how they understand place value.

It is a simple assessment; no advance degree in psychometrics necessary, no special forms to fill. All you need is 18 beans. Horse chestnuts would do or marbles (though they do tend to roll), pennies, peanuts. Could be sixteen, nothing wrong with seventeen. Me? I always use eighteen.

The teacher (note, teacher not assessor, appraiser, or testy tester) asks the kid to count them.

“18! Very good,” you say and then, “hey,” as in a sudden after thought, “could you write that number.”

The student, tongue out the better to concentrate, writes 18.

“That is wonderful.”

“Can you show me the beans (or chestnuts or dinosaurs or pennies…) this number is counting.” You circle the 8.

1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8 counted out neat as can be.

“Very good. And this number?” Pointing at the 1. “Can you show me the counters, pennies, beans …. this number is counting.”

The kid grins hugely at the simplicity of this question, slides over a single bean, leans back in the chair. Job well done.

“And the rest of the beans, pennies toy soldiers…. ?” I wave my pencil vaguely at the collection left to the side. “What are they?”


This assessment is supposed to illuminate a child’s understanding of base-ten notation.

I think it exposes a deeper truth in human thinking.

If the evidence left on the table doesn’t fit, bag it.

Theory trumps evidence.

Every time.

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