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How Can We Make Assessments Meaningful?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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?

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (54) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

[quote] I also wonder where in the "real world" we actually take tests to demonstrate our proficiency or effectiveness.[/quote]

Ever hear of U.S. Civil Service exams?

The branches of the U.S. military utilize all types of tests, paper/pencil or otherwise, to qualify for jobs or assignments.

Police academies requires paper/pencil exams along with other skill tests to graduate.

[quote]Also, if we are trying to make assessments more meaningful for students, shouldn't they be more realistic and engaging than tests?[/quote]

Or you can do what a lot of teachers are doing already, is dispensing with tests, grades, etc. and simply passing underperforming students onto the next grade so they can be someone else's problem.

But I'm among the few who will cite this as a major reason why schools fail. It's not about tests that fail, it's about TEACHERS that fail.

Bekah Lund's picture

I guess I am saying that I don't believe that on a frequent or consistent basis are professionals assessed via a test of some sort, so I don't believe that this is necessarily the most effective way to assess our students. I believe some times that tests are the most efficient way to assess certain skills or knowledge, but not the sole or best ways.
And yes, I have heard of the military and police forces using tests, but again because someone passes a test does not nor should it automatically qualify them for a position. There should be more diverse and applied assessments in my opinion.
Furthermore, I do believe in grades and holding students acvountable, but in a fair, productive, engaging way.

Lucas VL's picture
Lucas VL
High School English Teacher

I really like your 8 criteria for meaningful classroom assessment and the reminder of the Common Core's emphasis on the 4Cs (Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Communication).

In particular your note about transparency and explaining to students why an assessment has value is a great idea. I know that I don't often talk to my students about why they are doing a project or assessment despite having good reasons myself. Do you have any tips for how to approach these conversations with students (so they don't sound too preachy or authoritarian)?

Your suggestion about including space on a rubric also makes good sense to me. It helps students reflect on their knowledge, provides feedback so student feel more involved, and engages their critical thinking skills to analyze what they've done (more learning!). Instead of the circling 4, 3, 2, 1 method here on the rubric, do you think simply providing a blank space to write their comments would engage students more or provide more authentic feedback?

Kim M's picture
Kim M
K-5 Visual Art Teacher

This article has great idea about how to create meaning when assessing my art students. I like how the article talks about test format and aligning the format with real-world skills. If my students learn skills in art class and they can use these skills in their everyday life then I feel that my students are successing. So testing on these skills in important to me. The article also talks about using project-based learning and topics that interest students as a couple of way of creating successful students while testing. I would agree with this. I find that if my students like the subject they are learning about, then they seem to excel in the artwork. When working over my next test with my students I am going to make sure that I include the 4 C's in my assessment.

Eric's picture

Very nice blog, I really liked how you talked about making everyday meaningful for students. I think as educators sometimes it is hard for us to always make it meaningful. The four C's is a great aid. Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Communication. Your right todays students are savvy, but teh more I work with them, the more I see that they need guidence in order to get something out of assessment. I think using the four C's will enable me to teach my students to see the benefits that assessment can bring. Also nice job with the rubric. My students do so much better when they have a rubric to follow.

Kandi Kopel's picture
Kandi Kopel
Center Based DCD teacher

The article was informative and full of good ideas. I especially like the rubrics included in the article for reference. I teach in a center based special education classroom and would appreciate ideas on how to integrate some of the suggestions noted with students who are unable to write and possibly unable to speak. Thanks!

Amber's picture
Kindergarten teacher from Minnesota

I think it is easy to say what assessments should do, but it is more difficult to actually apply it to your own assessments that you give to students. It is also difficult to get other educators on board to believe in more meaningful assessments. I really like the 8 questions that you ask yourself before giving out an assessment. I think these really would help to be sure the assessments are meaningful for learners. I also believe that it is important to address the 4 C's in order to keep students engaged.

Sonja's picture

I enjoyed this article because our district has transitioned to the Common Core standards. Thinking about the 4 C's is important when developing an assessment. I found the 8 steps helpful to think about when making the assessments. I agree that assessments have to be meaningful and it helps if you can relate it to real world situations. This can be difficult and time consuming, but I think that it would give you a better idea of what the students really know.

Chrishayla Darlington's picture

This was a great article! I too believe that in order for students to make those real-world connections that stakeholders desire, assessments should be a little more meaningful for and to the students so that they can actually "visualize" what is being asked.

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

I learned a lot from this article Heather Wolpert-Gawron. As I observed many teachers in academic subjects are under enormous pressure to ensure that their students are learning progress each school year. Although most educators are not yet under a mandate to administer standardized tests, schools do seem to be moving in the direction of increased testing and accountability for all teachers. The results of standardized tests are being used to make decisions about tenure and salaries. Even if your state mandates a certain type of test in physical education, you can implement other meaningful assessments that enhance student learning. If you do use an assessment, make it mean something and use the results. Also these assessments that give you vital information that will help you teach better and help students learn or improve their skills.

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