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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Should We Measure Student Learning? The Many Forms of Assessment

There is more than one way to measure a student's abilities.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades
VIDEO: Assessment Overview: Beyond Standardized Testing
Assessment is at the heart of education: Teachers and parents use test scores to gauge a student's academic strengths and weaknesses, communities rely on these scores to judge the quality of their educational system, and state and federal lawmakers use these same metrics to determine whether public schools are up to scratch.

 

Testing forms the bedrock of educational assessment and represents a commitment to high academic standards and school accountability. You can't know where you're going unless you know where you are. But when the financial and emotional stakes associated with standardized tests are disproportionately high, this laudable goal gets distorted. Teachers begin teaching to the test simply to raise scores, often at the expense of more meaningful learning activities. And when the tests are too narrow a measure or aren't properly aligned to standards, they provide little concrete information that teachers and schools can use to improve teaching and learning for individual students.

Twenty-First-Century Assessment

The demands of the today's world require students learn many skills. A knowledge-based, highly technological economy requires that students master higher-order thinking skills and that they are able to see the relationships among seemingly diverse concepts. These abilities -- recall, analysis, comparison, inference, and evaluation -- will be the skills of a literate twenty-first-century citizen. And they are the kinds of skills that aren't measured by our current high-stakes tests.

In addition, skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and moral character -- traits that aren't measured in a typical standardized tests -- are increasingly important. Businesses are always looking for employees with people skills and the ability to get along well with coworkers.

Multiple Forms of Assessment

We know that the typical multiple-choice and short-answer tests aren't the only way, or necessarily the best way, to gauge a student's knowledge and abilities. Many states are incorporating performance-based assessments into their standardized tests or adding assessment vehicles such as student portfolios and presentations as additional measures of student understanding.

These rigorous, multiple forms of assessment require students to apply what they're learning to real world tasks. These include standards-based projects and assignments that require students to apply their knowledge and skills, such as designing a building or investigating the water quality of a nearby pond; clearly defined rubrics (or criteria) to facilitate a fair and consistent evaluation of student work; and opportunities for students to benefit from the feedback of teachers, peers, and outside experts.

With these formative and summative types of assessment come the ability to give students immediate feedback. They also allow a teacher to immediately intervene, to change course when assessments show that a particular lesson or strategy isn't working for a student, or to offer new challenges for students who've mastered a concept or skill. Return to our Assessment page to learn more.

 

Comprehensive Assessment Overview

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Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Carolyne,
Even though standardized tests seem as though they will be here forever, I also do not fully agree with them. I teach 5th grade Special Ed. to students who have mild-moderate learning disabilities. As a Spec. Edu. teacher, part of my job is to accommodate and modify their work so these students are successful. However, the Massachusetts MCAS, has very few accommodations for Spec. Ed. students. My students take the MCAS in every subject. How do you think they feel when they are expected to take the same test as every other fifth grader? My students usually get very frustrated during the test because the test is too difficult for them. I don't understand why I am supposed to assist these children every day at school, but then they are too receive no assistance for a test that they need to pass in order to graduate?! - Very confusing.

Patrick Edwin Moran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our whole educational system suffers because it gives teachers a kind of conflicted identity. The teacher interacts with students, but the teacher is not intended to take the child as a client. A boxing coach should not be the agent of the fight promoter of the gamblers who take bets on boxing matches. Boxers need coaches who are in their corners. But students do not get teachers who can have such undivided loyalty. Teachers are hired by boards of education or analogous groups that have social goals at the center of their mission, and students are put in the care of schools and their teachers by parents who have their own goals in mind. What would be the best for the student is most often not discussed from the student's point of view. Students may not conceive of themselves as individuals who ought to have a say in what they are to learn. Parents may not always honor the students' desires for certain kind of learning. Boards of education may have their own ideas about what students ought to be taught, but also have to keep a wary eye out for parental reactions and governmental imperatives.

Grades frequently function as extrinsic rewards and interfere with intrinsic rewards, The result all too often is that students care about the grades alone, and may learn to associate potentially rewarding course content with tedium and anxiety.

Grades, in most systems, also have the unintended consequence of putting students in an adversarial relationship to those who teach them. Students see teachers as the ones who construct the testing instruments that put them at risk of punitive responses from home, roadblocks to eventually gaining employment, and even the draft. It would be better for the student-teacher relationship if testing were done by an independent figure, and that it be made clear that if a student went to the teacher for a class the teacher's only function would be to prepare the student to pass the examinations.

Grades can perform many functions: They can used as be a shorthand way of informing potential employers, universities, etc. of the level of competence of a student in one area. They can be a summary way of indicating whether a student is ready for advancement along some academic path. They can taken as a measure of intelligence. They can used as a measure of effort. They can function as rewards and as punishments -- even for things that did not even occur in the classroom. None of the above grades is really intended for, or particularly useful to, the student. The student stands in judgment, and the teacher declares the student's worth.

The "rate of progress" measure that grades can give, however, is directly useful to the student, although I have found it difficult to introducing this grading function to students who have been conditioned to a decade or more of the judgmental kind of grading. It would be better for students if they could learn that weekly quizzes are useful indicators of how much progress the student has recently made toward eventually gaining the competency that will allow passage of cumulative exams (midterms, finals, etc.). Students can also be helped to maintain a check-list of course objectives that they will have to meet if they are to have a good shot at the problems to be posed by the external examiner.

In the absence of a real external examiner, the individual teacher may need to approximate this kind of testing instrument as well as possible. Students need to understand what and why this is being done, and they need to understand that high grades lead future employers, etc., to have high expectations that would be dashed if the testing instruments were not accurate.

One way of preparing students to accept this point of view is to make midterms and final examinations from previous years available to them early on in the course. It would be even better if the exams could be shared back and forth among teachers and classes in similar classes. Let students know that these are the expectations of the field, not the whims of a cranky teacher.

A further advantage follows from a well constructed series of semester exams -- teachers are then able to see from class averages where there may systematic weak points in one's teaching, and whether outcomes are improving year by year, are stuck at one point (which would be wonderful if the class average happened to be 95%), or are declining.

A classic on the subject of testing is:

    Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction

by Robert F. Mager

Jason Sparks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Robert, isn't your recommendation parallel to preparing for the standardized tests such as SAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc. Consider the MCAT (Medical Colleges Assessment Test) market. There's an independent testing authority - the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). Students attend classes through Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc. Others pay for private tutors. Many read books, attend study groups and leverage the Internet using social media and online content.

Robert Siegel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the Edutopia authors that there are many forms of assessment. Unfortunately, the word has received such bad press and been so misinterpreted that its connotation is negative. As in all good things, a balance is required. As I indicate in my Master's level course on "Using Assessment to Improve Learning" at Oregon State University, student motivation for learning is based a great deal on their motivation and encouragement for learning. This requires "ownership". When we move more towards assessment FOR learning instead of assessment OF learning, we begin to see the great power of the concept. There are many strategies to release this power, and master K-12 teachers know how this works. It is critical to employ these strategies as early on in a child's formal education as possible so that they will not feel "jaded" or have a prejudicial view about assessment. This is why I work mostly with K-8 teachers and administrators.
Robert Siegel, EdM. M.A.

Robert Siegel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the Edutopia authors that there are many forms of assessment. Unfortunately, the word has received such bad press and been so misinterpreted that its connotation is negative. As in all good things, a balance is required. As I indicate in my Master's level course on "Using Assessment to Improve Learning" at Oregon State University, student motivation for learning is based a great deal on their motivation and encouragement for learning. This requires "ownership". When we move more towards assessment FOR learning instead of assessment OF learning, we begin to see the great power of the concept. There are many strategies to release this power, and master K-12 teachers know how this works. It is critical to employ these strategies as early on in a child's formal education as possible so that they will not feel "jaded" or have a prejudicial view about assessment. This is why I work mostly with K-8 teachers and administrators.
Robert Siegel, EdM. M.A.

Paige Salane's picture

I strongly agree with project-based learning. I think it is a great way for students to think critically and creativity about a topic. I also think it allows a studnent to freely explore a topic the way they wish. A student will feel good about his/her work and will develop a better self-concept. Assessment is not the answer!

Paige Salane's picture

Project-based learning is a great way for a student to explore a topic on their own. It also gives students the opportunities to critically and creatively think about a topic. Assessment is not the answer!

Sharon C.'s picture

I agree with the article and the videos on the point that standardized testing is not the proper form of assessment. It can be a tool to gauge how students are doing but it does not give the whole, complete version of all that a child can do. Project-based learning is a great assessment tool that teaches students valuable skills for their future career while also exploring the standards in more depth. If project-based learning is taught more in elementary school, students will learn how to do a variety of skills instead of the "intellectual bulimia approach to learning" with tests. Students will learn that what they are taught in school actually applies to real-life. Therefore, learning will seem more meaningful to students. If a project is incorporated at the end of every high school class, hopefully there will be less people that drop out and do not graduate from high school. Students want learning to be useful and relate to their lives personally.

Bridgett Pressley's picture

I think project based learning is a great tool for teachers to use. It not only allows students to practice and develop real world skills, but it also allows students to show they know the content in a variety of ways. This can help students with learning disabilities because it allows them to focus on their strengths and present the material in ways other than the traditional written test.

Tasha Brannan's picture

I like how this article discusses the benefits for the students, including teamwork. In a classroom, this can help create a community of learners and provide the students with real-life experiences. Going along with the video, I like how the students put together a large portfolio to show to colleges and future employers.

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