George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What's the Point of Assessment?

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of Teaching and Learning
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A photo of a female teacher working with an elementary-school girl.

I remember sitting down for the PSATs in tenth grade. Having gone to a private school my whole life, I wasn't accustomed to taking standardized tests. I had taken a few, so I knew the drill about filling in bubbles, and I had been told to pick the best answer, not the right one, and all of that jazz. But what I wasn't prepared for were the easy questions. Yes, that is what I meant.  I wasn't prepared for easy, straightforward questions.

In my tenth-grade head, I remember the ongoing conversation:

"This is the PSATs, there is no way that's the answer."
"But it's the best fit."
"There must be some trick here. They're trying to ‘get’ me."
"So which one do I pick, the straightforward one or the one that could be right?”

Years later, I'm not sure how it all turned out (I ended up going to college and graduate school, so I think it all worked out fine), but what still sits uneasily with me from that experience is the idea that I thought the test was out to "trick" me.

The Challenges of Assessment

As teachers, we all want to be challenging. No one wants to be known as the "easy" teacher or the pushover. Some of us aspire to be feared or beloved, but we all want to challenge our students. Sometimes we create this culture within our own schools.

If everyone gets 100 percent on a test, does that mean that I taught them the material and everyone should be proud, or does it mean that my tests aren't challenging and kids can blow off my class?

As a teacher, when everyone in my class gets an A, I feel a tremendous amount of pride. This means that not only did I teach the unit well, but I was also able to differentiate both the learning and the assessment so that each student could succeed. Is that the general perception? Do students feel the same way? What about parents?

So what is the purpose of assessment? What are we trying to accomplish when we assess our students? What messages are we sending them along the way? I think it takes very careful planning on our parts to become the teacher who is challenging but beloved, who is taken seriously and runs a classroom where every child succeeds.

In my mind, it isn't a contest about who is an "easy grader" or a "hard teacher." This simply isn't the point of an assessment. We as teachers are not out to "get" our students, tricking them into choosing the wrong answers or solving the problems incorrectly. The purpose of assessment is really to understand what our students have learned, and to present it to ourselves and our students in a way that we can all see who has learned what.

It isn't surprising to me that when I got to tenth grade, I thought the tests were trying to trick me. I'm sure that I'd had many experiences in my life where this was indeed true. My teachers were trying to challenge me, to make me really examine their questions, to take everything that I thought I knew and prove that I really knew it.

3 Necessary Changes

As teachers, we need to change a few things about the way we assess our students.

First, we need to eliminate the competition among ourselves. Whether it is spoken or unspoken, we need to stop revering the teacher who fails all but the elite students. We need to understand how it's our job to make sure that every student is successful, and that when they're failing assessments that we've designed, it's a direct reflection on our own competence.

Second, just like planning a lesson, we need to plan assessments with our students in mind. I would never imagine that teaching a concept one time in one way would work for all of my students. Similarly, I think this way about assessment. Giving students choices, differentiating content and presentation, and allowing your learning to directly reflect your assessments are key to ensuring success. In other words, you may offer a few different types of assessments for different students and allow them to choose how they can best show their own learning.

And finally, we need to be genuine about the purposes of our assessments. The message that we give our students, both explicitly and implicitly, should be: "This assessment is designed so that I can see what you've learned and to give you concrete feedback about your learning." Whether the assessment is a test, project, oral report, or performance, the students must be told:

  • Why they need to perform well
  • What the goals are
  • How can they meet those goals

There should be no tricks or hidden agendas if we really want to use our assessments to help gauge our students' learning.

As you sit down to plan your next assessment, whether formal or informal, short-term or long-term, think about the message you are sending your students. What message is this assessment meant to send, and how are you teaching them this lesson?

What do you do in your classroom to show your students what they have learned throughout a unit of study?

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

So many good thoughts here! I really like the way you're thinking about assessment as something bigger than just a way to give grades. I teach my grad students to think of assessment as all the stuff they do to help them know their students better- it's data collection. Evaluation is the part where they decide what all that data means, but assessment- it's from the root for "to sit beside." Based on this, I can really see all the ways you're "sitting with" your students as they learn. Your advice to teachers is spot on- I'll be sharing it, I promise!

Sarah Z's picture
Sarah Z
Reading Instructor, Tutor and Blogger focused on improving education for struggling students

You're so right. Assessments should give the teacher information about her teaching, just as it gives students and parents information about their learning. I hated the feeling in high-school and college that tests were more about playing the game than about what I actually learned. In the program I tutor now, assessments are called "Spell Checks" and they are mostly for the instructor. If a student doesn't pass, that's a clue that the instructor needs to go back and reteach before moving on because there was something the student didn't learn that they need to. It works wonderfully!

Shira Loewenstein's picture
Shira Loewenstein
Associate Director of Teaching and Learning

Sarah Z. that is great to hear! When we stop playing the 'blame' game with students and teachers it really pushes forward the learning. If an instructor realizes that the student didn't 'get' a concept because the instructor failed to teach it properly--to no fault of the student we are all more inclined to make assessments a fair reflection of what the students should have learned from our teaching.

Shana Augustyniak's picture

Very insightful! I am a test coordinator where I work, so mostly I deal with state and district tests and I often wonder what goals are really trying to be accomplished by standardized tests. How accurate can they really be if they do not take into account the individual students or the teachers. Does it make you a bad teacher if your students don't reach the goals that are set for them by people who have never met them? What good does it do to only give a student a score and not specific and constructive feedback? Assessment really should be about helping the students reach their specific goals.

Shira Loewenstein's picture
Shira Loewenstein
Associate Director of Teaching and Learning

I love that you are asking these questions as a test coordinator! You are right that we need to evaluate the need and the goal of these tests before we administer them and let the students know the purpose as well.

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