Legitimate Uses Of Assessment

This is the first of eight posts on assessment. I have combined and edited them into a single article on my Web site. Read it there!

Much of the series will focus on some of the traps that are so easy to fall into, and are so damaging to student learning. My experience is primarily in high school math education, but I hope the series will be of use to people in other disciplines and other grade levels.

The Assessment Trap, Part 1: Legitimate Uses Of Assessment

Assessment, of course, plays an important part in instruction. I will start by discussing how it can be used to improve student learning.

1. Fine-tuning the course.

This is by far the most important use, because it affects the most students: not only the ones in the current class, but also the ones who will take future iterations of the class. If a quiz reveals a widespread misunderstanding, it is a sign that something was wrong with the way I taught that topic. Is there another representation of the concept that would help? A different tool that can get the idea across? A different sequencing of topics that would provide a stronger foundation?

2. Diagnosing individual students’ understanding and skills
3. Helping students realize what they know and can do

Assessment makes it possible for the teacher and student to celebrate what has been learned, and zero in on the areas that require the most attention. Ideally, some combination of student agency and teacher / school support can help address those challenges.

4. Providing learning opportunities

Many teachers separate assessment from learning. That is neither necessary nor desirable. Assessment can be an integral part of the curriculum: not an endpoint, but a point along the way. This is especially true of at-home assignments and test corrections. (More on those in future posts.)

A quiz or test can contribute to instruction with the inclusion of one or two questions that extend a given topic, or require students to apply what they know in an unexpected context. A challenging question on a quiz can be the launching pad for deeper learning, or even provide an introduction to a new concept. This use of assessments is, to say the least, controversial.

When a student or parent or administrator objects that it is “unfair” to include challenging questions on assessments, they are betraying a certain point of view on education. Unfortunately, it is a widespread point of view: assessments are opportunity to regurgitate ideas that were deposited in their brains by the teacher. If instead you prioritize student understanding over student recall, as I do, you are obligated to provide opportunities for students to engage intellectually with the material, even on an assessment, perhaps especially on an assessment.

Concerns about fairness are of course legitimate. They can be addressed, for example, by appropriate weighting of different parts of the assessment, by labeling questions as “bonus”, or in some other way. In my view, removing challenging questions altogether is an unacceptable lowering of expectations. I will return to this in a future post.

Note that all four uses of assessment I have mentioned above can be thought of as formative, in that they focus on student learning, not student ranking.

As you probably surmised from the title of this piece, I believe there are problematic uses of assessment. I will address those in my next post.


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