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

There is more than one way to measure a student's abilities.

There is more than one way to measure a student's abilities.

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.

VIDEO: Assessment Overview: Beyond Standardized Testing

Running Time: 9 min.

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.

This article originally published on 3/16/2008

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Patrick Edwin Moran (not verified)

testing and psychology

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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

Sarah (not verified)

Hi Carolyne, Even though

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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.

Andrea (not verified)

Although testing can be

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Although testing can be stressful and demeaning for some people, it can also be a useful tool for teachers to find areas of weakness that must be enhanced. I am in full agreement that testing that simply pigeon-holes kids into the haves and have-nots of intelligence cannot help educators educate. However, a testing system that helps show progress, while still helping us see areas of weakness, would be a great tool for helping students become achievers in academic areas. I do not believe that we need to test in every intelligence area: sports, art, music, etc. I do believe that a basic education in core content is necessary for everyone, regardless of your likes and dislikes, and that everyone can learn to one degree or another. Not everyone is going to be a super-great math student, but everyone can learn basic math and mathematical concepts that apply to almost every area of life. Not every student needs to be able to write the great American novel, but every student needs to communicate effectively with others in both written and spoken language. When we become less focused on punishing schools and more focused on educating our students, we'll see testing as the developmental tool that it should be, not the nemesis of all.

JM Ivler (not verified)

Diagnostics verses testing

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As one of the two authors of an issued patent on educational computer adaptive diagnostics I believe that all educational testing today is flawed (of course we are building a product based on our patent to overcome those flaws :-) ).

First, all testing is binary. It is all true/false. Even multiple choice is true/false with each of the distractors a false since they are only used for scoring the "test" and not for immediate feedback to determine where to question next based on the distractor representing a known misapplication of a primitive concept (the core of our patent).

As long as testing is based on a binary relationship between the student and the answer to the question, testing will remain a flawed method of uncovering what a student does and doesn't know.

Just-in-time manufacturing is about getting just what the worker needs into their hands at just the time they need it in order to ensure that they can use it to do their job. Diagnostics sould do the same thing. It defines the limits of the students knowledge and delivers the right tools to the student to learn the things that they need to know at just the time that they are ready to understand those concepts.

If we look at education models that work best we see that directed education using a socratic model is the one that works best. The problem is how do we do that in a classroom environment. Yes, it works well when doing it one-to-one in a tutor setting, but how do we leverage that into a process that can be used in a classroom where there are thirty or more students.

This become more problematic when you consider that the current teaching models are all based on learning segments where the items to be learned are chopped up into one to three week modules of teach-drill-test and then no mater what the result, move on to the next segment. For instance, in a fourth grade class a set of students may be working with fractions using "time" math (understanding the 1/4 hour, etc) for two weeks and then after they test through that they move on to learning about decimal math doing a teaching segment on money. Later in the year they may be introduced to fractions again, but it is not related to time math, and there is no reconnection to the earlier learning segments. So, they are introduced to things like numerator and denominator while not having earlier relevant information included to show how time math and fraction math are similar concepts that are integrated.

This focus on segmented learning in a classroom environment fails to build on the students past knowledge by delivering the tools and materials in a just in time manner. In this way learning is chopped up and there is little building on past exposure to concepts while expanding on new concepts and showing the relationships between them.

Using diagnostics instead of testing allows a process to be developed where a student is presented concepts, and by selecting incorrect answers they expose misunderstanding of primitive components that allows for immediate remediation. So, instead of the segment of teach-drill-test the process becomes a cycle of diagnose-learn-drill. Where the next diagnose moves the student to the next learn process and they can build on the last learned information to expand their knowledge as they build it.

At this point I should state that this method works exceptionally well in any structured learning where the prior information is used to move on. In other words, it works wonderfully in math. If the subject matter is tree-based then this model is the most functional model of teaching. Unfortunately in science for instance the model is more of a coil. There is no need to understand the first law of thermodynamics in order to understand the third. In English it is even more complex as the core to understanding there is usage and a complete understanding of the exceptions to every rule rather than a detailed understanding of the rule itself (think of a scatter shot from a shotgun rather than either a tree or coil).

JM Ivler is NOT a teacher. He is one of the principles of EduCAD Learning Solutions and co-author of a patent on adaptive diagnostics. EduCAD Learning Solutions has completed a years beta testing on their socratic tutor product (a product designed for learning math based on the patent principles) with over 1000 students and is preparing the product for public launch in 2009.

Silvia (not verified)

I believe that when we give

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I believe that when we give the students real instruction they will learn and there is no need to teach to the test. Testing used to assess student progress and for planning future instruction is important. But too much emphasis is placed on the test results and I too find myself "teaching to the test."

Mabel (not verified)


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Hi Carolyne

I so agree with you. As a child, I didn't do well with testing and it is the same now. I've seen students become ill right before taking the FCAT. I feel for our students. There is so much focus on testing. You are right about looking for answers to questions. We are constantly looking up answers to questions. We are learning everytime we are looking for answers.

Pamela Sue Doty (not verified)


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Standardized tests never revealed anything about my aptitude in art. All they managed to do was make me more insecure about my intelligence through low scores in areas that were not my strengths. As it was then it is still so today: art is a step child to the core areas. I understand the importance of science, math, and language, however, art is what holds them all together and gives them a user-friendly interface. Where is the core area in Art? I offer this:

The structural science of a chair is nothing without the industrial design to make it appealing to the consumer. The math used in deciding how much the chair will cost to produce means little if the color choice and fabric are neglected. Efforts to bring the chair to market go nowhere if a graphic-less plain paragraph touting the chair is posted outside the factory doors. How do you put a score on that?

Carolyne (not verified)


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I just do not agree with standardized tests. As a child, I was the student who did not test well, even as an adult the thought of taking a test turns my stomach. I understand the need for assessment but what exactly do these tests assess? What I think would be more helpful is to give a standardized test at the beginning of the year and then give the same test at he end of the year to show student growth.
What I do not understand is the fact that we have to cover up anything on our walls that has writing on it. Come on now! In the real world, we are able to look for answers to questions that we have practically anywhere, so why cover up material that may be useful or even helpful. I always tell my students be “problem solvers not problem starters,” then I am made to cover up my walls.

adnan zakir (not verified)

higher thinking

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i just want to ask u a question that how can we assess student's higher thinking.

L. Smith (not verified)

Testing is not the answer.

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Testing is not the answer. All it does is give the "teacher" a basis for determining a grade. And, we all know that grading and grades are circumspect. Rather, a more true measure of learning is when the learner (i.e., the "student" using traditional and aniquated terminology and stereotyping) wants to know more about a topic or issue. This expression of desire for more is an affirmation that the learner has mastered current concepts and material and now wants to move on. In this scenario no test nor grade is necessary. What should be necessary is for the provider (i.e., the "teacher") to have the next level or dimension of concepts and materials readily available to present and apply once the learner expresses the desire to move on.

What we need is a system that is designed to cater to this basal learning behavior and can be applied in real time. Take a look at the definitive treatment "Education in America -- What's to Be Done?" developed by Trigon-International. This commission report presents an end-to-end solution that is actionable and affordable.

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