George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ask Ellen: Can Common Tests Assess Uncommon Kids?

Standardized assessments can't evaluate all kinds of learners.
By Ellen Moir
Related Tags: Assessment, All Grades
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Credit: Bart Nagel

Dear Ellen,

Our district places increased emphasis on common assessments (meaning all questions are exactly the same) on summative exams. When we plan these tests in our high school history department meetings, it is often difficult to agree on the phrasing of a question. Though we have all covered the same content, some teachers have focused more or less heavily on some topics, while others have focused in greater detail on other issues. What best practices support creating better common assessments?


Dear Sara,

Thanks to the advent of high-stakes testing at both the state and national levels, we see an increasing push by many school districts to standardize their assessments, a development that has beneficial as well as troubling consequences for students and teachers.

Common assessments can provide teachers with an understanding of what their students know, and, depending on the assessment's complexity, what those students can actually do within a discipline or subject area. However, a troubling concern for student learning is that some districts and teachers select the common assessment that is the lowest common denominator in testing: the multiple-choice test. This test, though easy to score, is exceedingly difficult to construct well, and in the end is by its nature a limited assessment measure that serves a diverse student population poorly.

Teachers may learn something from multiple-choice assessments about the kinds of specific content knowledge students understand -- in your case, history -- but you will learn almost nothing about their deep comprehension of larger concepts. History is a discipline, and the content serves only as the raw material for a way of thinking. History, when taught well, encourages students to analyze historical evidence, evaluate it, and then demonstrate understanding of that evidence in meaningful and complex ways, something not even the best multiple-choice assessment can capture.

As a result, the challenge for your department is to create complex and common assessments in which students actually demonstrate the discipline's authentic practice rather than cursory knowledge of its discrete, factual pieces.

How to attend to this dilemma? For one of your department meetings, you might read and discuss the chapter "Thinking Like an Assessor" in Grant Wiggins's and Jay McTighe's book Understanding by Design. This important work encourages us to construct curriculum always "with the end in mind," and then to think much differently about how we assess student learning. When you are building a common assessment, it poses questions to consider, such as "What would be sufficient and revealing evidence of understanding?" and "How can I distinguish between those who really understand and those who don't (though they may seem to)?"

Another knotty issue in creating common, summative assessments is attending to the diverse learning needs of our students. How might we capture the heart of the unit in content and concepts while building assessments that allow different kinds of students to demonstrate what they know and can do in ways that speak to their capacities?

For example, if your department teaches a unit on the modern civil rights movement, you'll need to determine what matters about that movement, and why. If you've decided as a department that students are to consider the way religion, young people, music, and federal power coalesced in the movement to change the law, then the challenge comes in developing several kinds of ways students can demonstrate their knowledge while nonetheless engaging with common "enduring understandings."

Is it possible to produce a common assessment that includes three or four options -- an essay, a take-home museum project, an exploration of historical documents and response -- but still requires that students demonstrate in their responses the key knowledge and skills expected of them? And does the option-loaded assessment expect that each student explore how and why the modern civil rights movement mattered to America, and how it still does?

Creating common assessments that honor the content and nature of our discipline while keenly and clearly assessing what students know and can do is complex, important, and challenging work. By working collaboratively with your colleagues and starting always with Steven Covey's "end in mind," we're likely to produce assessments that are meaningful to both students and their teachers.


Ellen Moir is a veteran bilingual teacher who is focused on the challenges faced by new teachers as well as on the needs of those with long careers in education. She is also the executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a resource for educator-induction research, policy, and practice.

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sheri evans's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

By creating a project for the students to do as a hands-on activity, one is better able to assess student understanding and have the students participate in peer education to solidify student understanding. The world of technology is a great teaching tool. I have been amazed by my own childrens' ability to demonstrate understanding through their presentations and power points. Through this avenue it is easier to create a rubric to assess student understanding and to promote peer teaching

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