A More Efficient and Productive Way to Conduct Math Assessments

Here’s how to assign graded work that more accurately assesses elementary students’ learning and saves time.

April 2, 2024
SeventyFour / iStock

Many elementary math teachers I work with have a love/hate relationship with graded work and assessments. Teachers need data that will drive instruction, but it can seem like students are constantly being assessed, and there’s too much to sift through. There is a way to work smarter and consolidate this process to maximize student learning and the purpose of this practice.  

Throughout this exploration of the components of graded work, I want to acknowledge and validate that I repeatedly hear from teachers that they want students to build stamina, they want students to be able to show their thinking independently (not just when they’re with the teacher), and there’s not enough time.

I agree with all of that, and the considerations below can be a starting place for refining current practices. 

How much work

Consider how much work you’re asking students to do. Teachers often have the dilemma of how to give grades while keeping the parents’ perspectives in mind. Parents use grades to measure mastery, indicating whether they should be worried about their children academically. This can make teachers want to assign students 10 to 20 questions so that they don’t get a 75 percent for missing one question.

This is problematic for many reasons. We need to assess what we value and communicate that to students and parents. When students see that they’re only getting credit if an answer is correct, the answer is all they value, and their parents follow suit.

So, what is the goal of an assignment? The goal is not to get the right answer. A calculator can do that. We want to create critical, flexible thinkers who can think computationally and efficiently. To be a future-ready learner and a critical thinker, students must communicate and think thoughtfully about the content they’re learning. They must learn how to get the thoughts swirling in their mind onto paper so that when a problem is too difficult, they know how to process it thoroughly.

Type of work

Consider the type of work you’re asking students to do. Students need to be able to communicate their thinking through speaking and writing. That’s not only what good mathematicians do but also a skill that students will use daily throughout their lives.

When we assign multiple-choice questions to students, we can’t see much of their thinking or the process of how they reached the circled answer. We don’t know if they got lucky, guessed, used deductive reasoning, or truly understood the problem. The answer choices give the student a starting place, placing the question at a lower level of rigor. This is why some states are going away from multiple-choice tests.

Assessing students this way makes it very difficult to respond accurately to their needs, and it reminds me of a quote from one of the most highly respected math educators, author Marilyn Burns: “Correct answers can mask confusion, just like incorrect answers can hide understanding.” Students need to show mastery of the mathematical practices or process standards, not only the content or computation. 

Here are some parameters to keep in mind to understand components of student thinking systematically.

  • Include only two or three questions.
  • Use questions from recent and spiraled essential standards, so that students must use their problem-solving skills more heavily. When students know what concept an entire assignment is about, they don’t have to productively struggle as much.
  • In upper grades, provide a checklist of student behaviors you’d like to assess. In lower grades, providing labeled boxes or the representations you wish to see is helpful for organization and guidance. Anticipate misconceptions when choosing the skills to assess so that you have current data to drive small group instruction. 
  • Scaffold skills that are harder to grasp until students get the hang of it. Students will need guidance for the level of expected rigor.

When students get used to this system, they will have fewer questions about what’s expected, and this deep level of thinking will become habitual. Here are lower-grade and upper-grade examples. You can give points for each part of the checklist to communicate that student thinking is valued as much as the answer. 

Graded work as an assessment

Consider using graded work as an assessment that drives part of your small group instruction. When we value student thinking, we can get to the root of misunderstandings because they have been thoroughly exposed. Some teachers feel that students need to practice more questions to gain stamina and do well on other tests. Thinking this deeply about problems does develop stamina.

There are other parts of the math block that allow students to answer many problems, such as learning stations. Since you’re already sitting down to grade student work possibly weekly or even more often, use this work for multiple purposes. You can use it to get grades and gain insight for small group instruction as you create groups based on problem-solving and content misconceptions while grading instead of using multiple sources. This will eliminate some exit tickets or other assessments from your weekly routine.

As you see common misunderstandings, think about a specific skill you can teach students to clear up that misconception, and group those students together or use a tool like this one as you grade each paper. You walk away from a grading session with intentional groups that will last for a week or maybe longer. 

These slight adjustments to make student work more open-ended have countless benefits. Not only can these moves help all students grow and show visible next steps, but also this streamlined approach can create more consistency in communication about academic progress among students, teachers, and parents. It can save teachers time by allowing them to grade fewer problems and feel more in tune with student needs. And not only will you end up with grades in the gradebook, but also you’ll be prepared with intentional small groups for upcoming instruction. Students will become more independent and targeted in their thinking, helping teachers to know them better as learners and grow them as mathematicians. 

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Math
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.