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How Can We Make Assessments Meaningful?

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I think meaningful assessments can come in many shapes and sizes. In fact, to be thoroughly engaging and to draw the best work out of the students, assessments should come in different formats.

Thankfully, with the Common Core standards exemplifying the 4Cs -- Creativity and Critical Thinking (through performance-based assessments), Collaboration, and Communication (through the use of interdisciplinary writing) -- we are looking at a more fluid future in testing formats. As long as the format itself is aligned with real-world skills, a meaningful assessment does not need to be lockstep with a particular structure any more.

When I think about my own definition of a "meaningful assessment," I think the test must meet certain requirements. The assessment must have value other than "because it's on the test." It must intend to impact the world beyond the student "self," whether it is on the school site, in the outlying community, the state, country, world, etc. Additionally, the assessment should incorporate skills that students need for their future. That is, the test must assess skills other than merely content. It must also test how eloquently the students communicate their content.

Criteria for a Meaningful Classroom Assessment

To address these requirements, I ask myself the following guided questions:

  1. Does the assessment involve project-based learning?
  2. Does it allow for student choice of topics?
  3. Is it inquiry based?
  4. Does it ask that students use some level of internet literacy to find their answers?
  5. Does it involve independent problem solving?
  6. Does it incorporate the 4Cs?
  7. Do the students need to communicate their knowledge via writing in some way?
  8. Does the final draft or project require multiple modalities (visual, oral, data, etc.) in its presentation? 

Clearly not all assessments achieve every single characteristic listed above. But in our attempt to address some of these elements, we will have made our classroom assessments so much more meaningful. It is vital that students connect with the value of their assessments. After all, if a student trusts that the assessment is meaningful and will help them later on, it helps with both their achievement and with your own classroom management.

Transparency and Why It's Important

It's important that we inform the students why a particular assessment has value. Some teachers still balk at this job, as if students should just trust that what we do in school has value to what happens outside of school. However, kids are smart. They know that bubbling with a #2 pencil is antiquated. They know that much of the content we teach them can be found through Google. But as savvy as students are, they don't know everything about communicating their content, and we owe it to them to make sure that not only are our tests aligned with skills they must know for their future, but to make sure that we've been transparent in our rationale.

So how can high-stakes assessments be meaningful to students? For one thing, high-stakes tests shouldn't be so high stakes. It's inauthentic. They should and still can be a mere snapshot of ability. Additionally, those occasional assessments need to take a back seat to the real learning and achievement going on in every day assessments observed by the teacher.

The key here, however, is to assess every day. Not in boring, multiple-choice daily quizzes, but with informal, engaging assessments that take more than just a snapshot of a student's knowledge at one moment in time.

But frankly, any assessment that sounds cool can still be made meaningless. It's how the students interact with the test that makes it meaningful. With the 4 Cs in mind, ask if the assessment allows for the following:

Creativity Are they students creating or just regurgitating? Are they being given credit for presenting something other than what was described?

Collaboration Have they spent some time working with others to formulate their thoughts, to brainstorm, or to seek feedback from peers?

Critical Thinking Are the students doing more work than the teacher in seeking out information and problem solving?

Communication Does the assessment emphasize the need to communicate the content well? Is writing involved, as well as other modalities? If asked to teach the content to other students, what methods will the student use to communicate the information and help embed it more deeply?

Rubric on Meaningful Assessments

So as an activity for myself, I created a rubric to look at whenever I was wondering if an assessment was going to be a waste of time or was going to connect with the students. (Click the chart to download the PDF.)

Another way to ensure that an assessment is meaningful, of course, is to simply ask the students what they thought. Design a survey after each major unit or assessment. Or, better yet, if you want to encourage students to really focus on the requirements on a rubric, add a row that's only for them to fill out for you. That way, the rubric's feedback is more of a give-and-take, and you get feedback on the assessment's level of meaningfulness as soon as possible.

Download the example (left) of a quick rubric I designed for a general writing assessment. I included a row that the participants could fill out that actually gave me quick feedback on how meaningful or helpful they believed the assessment was towards their own learning. As an instructor and lesson designer, I want a quick turnaround between when I assign an assessment and if I need to adjust the assessment to meet the needs of future learners. By also giving them a space to fill out, they own the rubric even more, and will pay more attention to what I fill out knowing that I gave them an opportunity to also give me feedback. It's one way the students and I can learn reciprocally.

So how do you ensure that your classroom assessments are meaningful?

Comments (53)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Alison's picture

I really enjoyed reading your personal views on meaningful assessments. I think it is so difficult to create meaningful assessments and I liked your ideas that you have. I think the example of the rubric was particularly helpful when thinking about how to assess if an assignment or task was meaningful. I plan on using it as a reference throughout my year and assignment planning. I also like how you survey your students and get their feedback. I think that is incredibly valuable. I look forward to sharing the 4C's with my colleagues this fall.

Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

Excellent Post!
It was great to read your views about assessments. Assessments should always be given importance, and students must realize its significance. I totally agree with you that transparency is important. Teachers should make students understand the value of assessments, only then will students perform well. Just a suggestion, shouldn't we add weekly test in assessments, so that students give more importance to it?
Thanks a lot for this post! I think ill use it for my own students.

Nua's picture

Heather thanks for the assessment information. Although I haven't experimented with several of the assessments mentioned, I believe it definitely allows the teacher to effectively assess the students and adjust lessons as needed. I also find several of the responses to be very informative. Thanks!

Nua's picture


That is a great idea with the different markers. It really help the student see what they did well and also see what they can improve on. Thanks for sharing.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

I'll say it again, but PBL is simply an excuse for lazy teachers to assign work that's much much easier and less time consuming to grade. We all know that grading traditional test items consume more time, yet, if constructed properly, they provide the most accurate form of data gathering. Grading PBLs become far too subjective. How does a language arts teacher accurately grade a student's level of artistic ability on a PBL project? What training in art ed do they possess to make an accurate determination of quality? Their criteria could be quite biased and therefore, invalid. Having a rubric doesn't make the assessment foolproof, either.

All of us know that in group PBLs, one or two students do all the work and one or two usually slack off and don't pull their weight. Then the teacher has to referee the inevitable fingerpointing squabbles and waste time sorting through student testimony that can't be truly verified as either true or false.

I know of some teachers who turn their whole curriculum into a series of PBLs. Guess what, that doesn't prepare them for school in the future and certainly not school at the college level.
But what it does is provide that same teacher more time to indulge their true passions, which are maintaining their so-called "social footprint," reading their hundreds of emails and tweets, or texting their friends about some trivial matters.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

"The assessment should incorporate skills that students need for their future." Herein lies the biggest fault in any silver bullet approach to school, every child is different, therefore every child may need a varied apporach. If Johnny or Selena simply want to explore a fascination with local geology why does there need to be an assessment? At other times they may want to understand Algebra for purposes of an ACT test, in that case an assessment may be appropriate, the context and decision making done in a democratic manner (equal say for both teacher and student) might cause all of us to rethink any form of assessment. Each of the premises identified fails the true test of differentiation, each child may not need Algebra, English 4, etc. and if they do the real question is what does the student hope to gain from their time in your class? "The test must assess skills other than the mere content. " Not necessarily. "It must also test how eloquent the students communicate their content. " Not necessarily.

"To address these requirements, I ask myself the following guided questions:
1.Does the assessment involve project-based learning?
2.Does it allow for student choice of topics?
3.Is it inquiry based?
4.Does it ask that students use some level of internet literacy to find their answers?
5.Does it involve independent problem solving?
6.Does it incorporate the 4Cs?
7.Do the students need to communicate their knowledge via writing in some way?
8.Does the final draft or project require other modalities in its presentation? (visual, oral, data, etc...)"

In its stead I ask myself, how can I help facilitate this person's growth towards their goals, their future, not one I have carved out for them, replete with my values and judgments which may have no bearing on what they have in mind for themselves nor any bearing on their own cultural values.

Justin Banitt's picture
Justin Banitt
High School Math Teacher from Minneapolis, MN

Thanks for the 4 C's when creating assessments. I've always felt like students should be able to work together and still be productive. It's hard as an educator to allow this at times because you want to get a good measure of an individual's mastery of the content. I really like your question regarding creative thinking, "Are the students doing more work than the teacher in seeking out information and problem solving?" I've heard this before and wondered how to get the students to work harder than the teacher. Incorporating critical thinking into an assessment and daily activities will go a long way in helping me achieve this. Thanks also for the rubrics. I like the idea of leaving a blank space for the students to comment on your assessments.

Ellie Hallquist's picture
Ellie Hallquist
Kindergarten Teacher from Otsego, Minnesota

I love your 4 C's! Even as I teach younger students, I think this is important for me to remember to give them choices and give them the freedom to be involved in their own learning. I have a difficult time just focusing on writing since they are so young, but we still can learn together and teach one another.
I also like the questions you ask yourself while creating assessments. We definitely can't meet all of them at once, but as you said, you need something to focus your attention as the teacher to be sure you are meeting the requirements. It is always smarter of us to create those learning targets and then create the lesson and assessment of how we are going to get the kids to that point.

nym's picture

I enjoyed reading your blog about the 4C's. I am always looking for ways to make the assessments more enjoyable and meaningful than using an end of the unit test. Keeping the 4C's in mind when creating an assessment gives you a starting point, and then following it through with the rubric ensures you have the 4C's covered.

It's always a good reminder to vary the assessments based on the content or subject matter, and to give students choices. It's always hard for me as a teacher to let go and allow them to choose because they might miss something important, but it's more beneficial for the students in the long run. They may get more out of the lesson and will definitly enjoy it more than a paper/pencil test.

Rachel's picture

As a teacher of young students, I find it challenging to find meaningful assessments that truly reflect the students' learning and growth. Our district tests, especially this year, are incredibly difficult and frankly, not developmentally appropriate for my students. This blog has inspired me to take an active role in my students' assessment, and make my own using the 4 C's approach. I believe that this will make the assessment process much more enjoyable and meaningful for both my students and myself.

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