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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

Venetta Black's picture
Venetta Black
Fourth grade teacher from Fayetteville, North Carolina

You have made some very good points regarding meaningful assessments. I believe in ongoing assessments and prompt feedback. The 4Cs are crucial in assessing any students; as we should always be mindful of each learner that we are presented with every year.
I am a believer of allowing students to express themselves in what ever method they are comfortable with; thus bringing out their creativity. We are bombarded to give assessments that are only geared towards the success of a few students. What about the other learners, who are vocal, tactile and mathematical. I have a very diverse group of students working with; so I try to assess each of them accordingly. Just as how you mentioned that we should engage with the students during assessments and not just the standard paper test.

Maria's picture
ESL/Testing Coordinator NYCDOE

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. This really hit very close to home. With the New York City Board of Educations very recent transition into the Common Core Standards, I was able to relate to the 4c's and the relationship they have to bringing real life into the classroom. I look forward to seeing in the near future how the formal assessments will begin to reflect the CCLS. I can't express how important it is for schools to give meaningful assessments both on the formal and informal levels. Data is a buzz word these days which are beginning to define teachers and their effectiveness, which I totally disagree with. The reason why I disagree is because the assessments that we are giving are not meaningful and are created with biased perspectives. Our schools are rich with diversity and these tests are there to only cater to one type of child, the self-taught child. This does not benefit our children or show proper growth measures of our students. In turn, these tests negatively represent our teachers, which leads them to possible burnouts.
I hope in the near future the people running our schools will see this and be able to empathize with our views. At the end of the day we are the ones who know them best.

Laura Blanco's picture
Laura Blanco
Third Grade Teacher Burbank,Ilinois

Heather, you had many great points on making assessments authentic. I find that high stakes testing and how it is not authentic. Your rubrics are great tools for teachers to use to reflect and evaluate the types of assessments that we give. Your points about how the Common Core will create more authentic assessments is very true, but at the same time, how will that translate into the new type of testing associated with the Common Core Standards? It has always been my goal not to teach to the test, but sometimes I find that difficult being a third grade teacher. Any additional ideas on how to make assessments meaningful and reflect my students true ability, without the bubble letters?

Laura Blanco's picture
Laura Blanco
Third Grade Teacher Burbank,Ilinois

I agree with many of your points about standardized testing. It seems that we are relying too much on data and not enough on overall student growth. I also work in a district with a diverse population and many of those students don't do well on those types of tests and I feel that it often discourages them and makes them feel unsuccessful. While I agree that we need meaningful assessment, each region of the country is diverse and how can we compare apples and oranges? We need to focus on student growth overall, and not necessarily on a target percentage.

Amber's picture
3rd grade teacher

As I am working on an assignment for one of my masters classes, I am so glad I came across your post. Having only completed one year of teaching, I quickly came to realize how important meaningful assessments are in the classroom. I often wonder what assessments are of value to student achievement and which ones do not really matter. Too often teachers teach to all the high-stakes tests, and forget about the more important informal assessments that should be taking place in the classroom. The rubric to validate the meaningfulness of an assessments will be very beneficial to me this upcoming school year. I need to start creating assessments that allow for creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication as you had mentioned. Thanks for the insight into assessments!

Janet Moeller-Abercrombie's picture
Janet Moeller-Abercrombie
International Educator, Certified by the NBPTS | Educational Leader, Licens

Some of the most authentic, meaningful assessment is formative. It is done by simply walking around, talking with students, and noting your conversations.

The conversation goes something like this:
- a sincere, specific complement about the work you see.
- something that you notice and wonder about.
- one thing the student can pay attention to, work on, improve. This is most highly effective by having students identify where they are on one aspect of the rubric and where they want to be. You coach them how to get there.

Janet |

Ashley's picture

The conversation we are all concerned about is creating useful data on students so that we can support their learning. Even more so, we are all concerned about performance based pay, which is again on the tables of those in charge. What is not realized is, like most of you stated, that formal testing is focused on a small amount of our very diverse student populations. This is not fair to teachers because you can't base a teachers salary on a melting pot of students, even high performing teachers have years when the success rate within their classrooms do not increase substantially.
Daily assessment is an ingrained part of our routines that we don't even realize we are doing through active monitoring of students as they work. By doing this, we can observe how the students are learning and what they may need to reach the expectations we have for them. While I am actively monitoring and talking with my students each day, I carry a notebook/clipboard around with the intent of noting what the students are thinking. This helps me understand who needs extra support and who is ready to be challenged further within that concept.
Unfortunately, we are faced with formal state assessments which require students to apply the concepts they have learned in different situations. On the positive side, those states who have adopted the CCSS will be providing opportunities for students to create meaningful learning in multiple situations through problem solving and discovery instead of direct instruction. If we are able to anecdotally observe our students with the end result in mind, we will have a better understanding of what they know and the depth of which they know it.

Lisa's picture
3rd Grade Inclusion Teacher

I came across this blog while working on an assignment for a graduate class. I really enjoyed reading the post about assessment, and really agreed with a lot of the points that were made. I couldn't agree more that there should not be such a focus put on the results of high stakes testing as student achievement on these tests is only a snapshot of the student's ability. I also agree that assessment needs to be done everyday, and that the key to good assessment is using your results to drive your future instruction!

Additionally, I loved the rubric idea! I could definitely see how this would be attractive to students as they love to have a say or choice in the daily decisions being made in the classroom!

jen's picture

I really feel strongly about the importance of informing students about the value of assessment. All to often what teachers do in a classroom seems to be a mystery to students. Educating students about why this is an important process helps them to see the value of it. I have always appreciated a good rubric for my students. I have never considered using one for assessing my own teaching skills. Thank you for all the great ideas.

Sean D's picture

I agree with so many of the points that have been made. Several assessments at my current school are used to monitor student achievement but I feel that they are not being used to their potential. Our school employs many first year teacgers and it seems we simply teach the teachers how to use the assessments and not how to interpret them. We find out which students need additional support but we don't apply appropriate strategies to aid them. Thank you for some really great ideas that I will be sure to share with out specialists.

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