Driving at any speed on a foggy highway, when visibility is just beyond the end of the car, is scary. There’s no knowing what’s around the bend. The same can be said of assessments that include confusing data. They are accidents waiting to happen.
Lorna Earl, author of Assessment as Learning, says differentiation is “making sure that the right students get the right learning tasks at the right time. Once you have a sense of what each student holds as ‘given’ or ‘known’ and what he or she needs in order to learn, differentiation is no longer an option. It’s an obvious response.”
This definition reflects how important assessment is. At a fundamental level, we are differentiating when we act on accurate data to adapt instructional plans for a large group or to personalize for individuals and small groups. Because such planning takes time, it becomes critical that the assessments used in planning be free of logistical factors that create a fog around what learners truly know and do not know.
The alternative is a growing feeling of frustration and helplessness about our impact on learners’ academic growth when we focus on data that may not provide an accurate view of those learners. Here are some common examples of assessment fog and their solutions. My thinking on these issues has been influenced by Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading.
Points Off for Spelling and Punctuation When Assessing Content
There is a place for teaching and assessing mechanics. Such assessment should be kept separate from data on content understanding. A student may know and be able to apply much about the laws of motion, yet be a poor writer. Taking mechanics into consideration on the final content grade could lead to the conclusion that the student has a poorer understanding of the science concepts than they actually do.
Solutions: Assess mechanics as part of formative feedback, and not as part of the grade. Use the results for additional coaching. Or place the results into a category or proficiency rating that is separate from the content grade. For example, a student’s understanding of the laws of motion may be “Proficient” and writing mechanics may be “Needs Development.”
Extra Credit for Non-academic Tasks
A student who attends an event like a choir or parent night should not get points added to their grade in math or English. This creates a false indication of academic success. Padding the grade could hide serious gaps in understanding of math concepts or reading comprehension. Extra credit is especially problematic as it tends to be focused on activities that are unrelated to the area of student need.
Solutions: Assign work in which students connect math concepts to music or write a review of parent night for English. Attending the event becomes practice that is used to make legitimate connections to the curriculum for accurate assessment. Replace extra credit with assignments that help students fill the gaps in their understanding. Consider using these assignments to replace lost points for specific assignments, or use them as a requirement for redoing a test or product that originally assessed progress, a practice common in gamification.
Points Off for Lateness or Missing Information
Often, teachers take points off when students forget to put their names or the date on assignments, as a way of teaching responsibility. If a student’s name is not on a paper, how can they claim credit? And later in life, a missing date or other related logistical information on a form could lead to a delay in service until such information is provided. Personal responsibility is important, but taking off points gives a false impression of the student’s proficiency in the academic skill being assessed.
Late work is another concern shared by many teachers. There is a tension between knowing what students have learned and getting paperwork (grading) completed. Teachers may wonder how they will manage if students wait until the end of the marking period to turn in all their late work.
When points are taken off for lateness, once again the result is that the penalty obscures the record for understanding the student’s academic skill level. And when late assignments are not accepted, there is no data available as to the learner’s progress. With no data, the teacher’s job is more difficult. And not accepting late work means the skill level of students already falling behind will go unknown until the next assessment opportunity. The time lost could be monumental for the teacher and the student.
Solutions: Have the student fix the missing information or correct the location of the details before credit is recorded. Responsibility is learned when the weak skill is practiced, with coaching. Learning requires timely practice or revision when a gap is found.
Taking off points for late assignments does not improve responsibility. It’s a punitive response to an issue that coaching may do a better job of addressing. Involve parents by having students get their signature on a form that indicates the lateness of the assignment, before the work is accepted. A variation of this is to have the student write a letter to their parents letting them know that the work is late, and returning the note to the teacher with a parent’s signature.
The Benefits of Reducing Assessment Fog
As they work to reduce assessment fog, teachers will experience less frustration in their instruction because students will be able to clearly demonstrate what they know and do not know. And students will benefit because supports will more closely address their needs.