Assessment Tools and Strategies

 Earlier posts in this series:
     Legitimate Uses of Assessment
     Problematic Uses of Assessment
     The Meaning of Grades
     De-emphasizing Grades
     Grades: the Research
     The Perils of Backward Design

The Assessment Trap, Part 7: Assessment Tools and Strategies

In previous posts, I discussed the ways in which an overemphasis on assessment undermines curriculum, pedagogy, and student learning. Of course, it is politically impossible to avoid assessment, as it is a major preoccupation of students, parents, and administrators. Moreover, it is actually impossible to teach without assessing student understanding. As I mentioned in the first post of this series, there are legitimate, even essential uses of assessment: fine-tuning the course; helping both teacher and student know what the student understands and can do; and offering learning opportunities. All these are best served by decreasing the stakes. Lower stress translates into more accurate assessment. Ungraded formative assessments can serve the most important goals of assessment, and should play a bigger role than they do in many classes.

Still, much can be said in defense of traditional tests and quizzes: they provide a lot of information, they are easy to grade, and they are expected by all constituencies. Given that they are here to stay, how can we make them more effective? Here are some suggestions:

– Within reason, give students as much time as they want. If a student is not fast, or does not do well under time pressure, so what? It does not mean they don’t understand the material. Racing belongs in PE, not in the classroom.

Do not over-penalize students for small computational errors that could be eliminated by the use of technology such as calculators and computer algebra systems. Prioritize evidence of understanding, not nit-picking accuracy.

– Of course getting the right answer matters, which is why you might give less than full credit in the case of such errors. But if accuracy really matters to you, allow any and all technology during most tests. (Yes, there is a place for no-technology tests, but they should not be the default.)

Offer points for test corrections. This lowers the stakes in a good way. Everyone knows that doing well the first time is better, but if learning is the goal, what difference does it make if the learning occurs a week later? In my version of this, I told students they could get half-way to a perfect score by turning in high-quality corrections. I allowed my students to get help from anyone, but all writing must be their own. This assumes a standard of explanation that is higher than on the test itself.

Lag the quizzes: give new topics a chance to settle into your students’ consciousness before testing them. (See this post on extending exposure.)

– Periodically, administer cumulative tests, which include topics from earlier in the course. This way, you communicate the message that students are learning concepts for the long haul. Especially in combination with test corrections, this helps to reduce the stakes: students get more than one chance to show their understanding of a given topic, and midterms and finals are not so exceptional and intimidating.

Include “bonus” or “extra credit” questions, which are important to challenge your strongest students, and which can be used to deepen or extend understanding. I usually required those of all students in the test corrections. This gives the message that getting 100% is not easily achievable, and keeps everyone from getting complacent. It also helps to communicate that a test is a learning opportunity. There will be pushback on this (“This is not fair!”) but in fact, what would not be fair would be to limit tests to questions everyone can answer, as it would lower course expectations. Working hard on those items as part of the test corrections makes everything else more accessible. Of course, such problems should not carry a much weight, points-wise.

In addition to better tests and quizzes, it is important to have significant at-home assignments, including especially the test corrections mentioned above. Other possibilities:

Reports. Ask students to summarize a unit in their own words and with illustrations. Keep those to a reasonable length: one or two pages, or a poster. I have found this works well with 9th and 10th graders.

Projects. For example, write a (very) short science-fiction story involving exponential growth, with an appendix explaining the underlying calculations. Or use GeoGebra or Cabri 3D to construct an Archimedean solid. Projects are harder to think of, but I have used them successfully, especially with 11th and 12th graders.

– I have also used take-home tests. Those can and should be more difficult, and require more time, than in-class tests. My policy was the same as the one for test corrections: students can get help but they must write everything in their own words. But, you say, in that case, how can you use them as part of a student’s grade? If your view is that sorting students is more important than teaching them, you have a point. But I have found that on balance, test corrections and take-home tests do help student learning. A somewhat less differentiated set of grades is a price I’m willing to pay.

My experience is that at-home assignments reveal that some of the students who do exceedingly well in a classroom test do poorly when the assignment requires a more thoughtful approach. This is important information for the teacher, and moreover, as long as we’re trying to be fair, it levels the playing field some. In practice, test corrections are quick to grade, but reports and projects are not. One of those per grading period suffices.

Those were the approaches I used. Depending on your school and department culture, not all of them may work for you. Perhaps totally different strategies are in order at your school. (For example, group tests, or participation quizzes.) In any case, you should do what you can to reduce the stakes, to vary the assessments, and to make sure assessment does not dominate your teaching. More on this in the next and final post in this series.


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