How to Build Quality Assessment
Assessment is More Than Testing
A tragic near-casualty of the high-stakes movement is that, buried under an annual deluge of concerns—and rightfully so—about “testing” is the very real need for educators to develop and use data from quality classroom assessment. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) has identified five traits that indicate high-quality educational assessment. Let’s take a look at each of them and how you might use them to build quality assessments in your classroom.
Measure What You Want to Measure
How accurately do your assessments measure what your students know, understand, and are able to do in a targeted area? This is a classic issue in schools, particularly at secondary levels where a student’s omnibus percentage grade does not represent mastery of content in the same way that a standards-based grade might.
For example, you might give a unit test in an American History class that contains ten questions on the Progressive Era but only one of those ten addresses the fight for workers’ rights, two focus on Eugene V. Debs at the exclusion of other alternative political voices, and none assess knowledge of the early environmental movement. If you want to measure comprehensive knowledge of the Progressive Era, you would want to make sure that your assessment format and items accurately measure what you want to measure and weight content standards appropriately.
Are your assessment results consistent from student to student? Are different versions of your assessments directly comparable? Do your make-up tests measure the same content at the same level of rigor? Are you grading performance-based assessment via rubric in a fair and consistent manner? All of these are ways to make your assessments—and the resulting data—more reliable and thus useful in your instructional decision making process.
NWEA identified three key areas of concern related to assessment fairness: Cultural sensitivity, assessment bias, and accessibility to special populations. These are not creations of the PC police—they should be real concerns for educators as assessment fairness can directly impact validity, reliability, and student outcomes.
There are many obvious examples of assessment fairness issues. For example, if you have a culturally diverse group of learners in an english language arts class but attempt to assess their literacy by only assigning essays on the classic works of, say, John Milton (unless it is a class on Milton, of course—heaven forbid), you might not garner a full picture as to their abilities. A class that balances Milton (Paradise Lost), Achebe (Things Fall Apart), and Hesse (Siddhartha)? That’s a more culturally responsive curriculum with different avenues for assessment and overall richness of experience for students.
There are, however, many not-so-obvious examples of a lack of assessment fairness, from including too many “distractor” answers on a multiple choice section to asking questions that are inherently biased. Teachers who diversify content and experiences in class content and assessments while making sure that special populations are accommodated for are actively ensuring fairness in their classrooms.
Engage and Motivate Students
It’s useful to think about engagement and motivation as two separate constructs. During lesson instruction, for example, Phillip Schlechty’s classic five levels of engagement draw a distinction between student attention and commitment to task. A student might be paying attention but not feel committed to mastering the content. By the same token, a student may or may not be engaged in a particular assessment, and that level of engagement may be driven by different motivating factors, internal and/or external.
Be a voracious devourer of feedback from your students during lessons and, conversely, a relentless provider of feedback to students in return. Formative assessment is so powerful in getting a sense of student engagement and gaining the knowledge you need to change course in the moment and/or adjust your plan for the next day’s instruction.
Another powerful practice for engagement and motivation is to provide students with assessment choices. Instead of formative note-taking during direct instruction, science students could draw a visual representation of the concepts being instructed. Instead of lecturing and giving a test on political parties and campaigns, a high school government teacher could provide students with the option of volunteering for a party or campaign of their choice and reporting out to the class, using specific course content and vocabulary to explain their experiences.
Useful for Teacher Instruction - and Student Learning
NWEA refers to the usefulness of assessments as “consequential relevance.” This means that you are able to “…understand the data and use it to meaningfully adjust [your] instruction and better support student learning.”
In other words, if you are working on paragraph development with your young learners, you will understand that formative assessment of those paragraphs will tell you how well students understand and are able to generate the perfect paragraph. That assessment will not tell you—at least, not right away—how well a student can construct a five-paragraph essay. You will focus on what it tells you about the student’s paragraph construction, related strengths and weaknesses, re-teaching opportunities, and how you might project the student to perform on future paragraphs or long-form writing opportunities.
Assessment and your Learning Management System
Your learning management system (LMS) should do several things for you with regard to student assessment. First, your LMS should make it easy to curate content. From there, your LMS should be a powerful tool to link the content to customized assessment in the classroom, with real-time results and data gathering. Feeling a little more asynchronous? You can use your LMS to “flip” a lesson by assigning your class to watch a thought-provoking video clip and respond on a discussion board or directly to you—a sort of exit ticket in reverse—before attending the next day’s class. This diagnostic, formative work sets the stage for a more energetic and engaged classroom experience.
Let’s say you want to have students debate the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II. From your previously curated course content, you assign several short, engaging video clips to your students and ask them to formulate several short, simple opinions about the use of atomic weapons from watching those clips and sharing some of these nascent thoughts on an online class discussion board. By front-loading the content and a beginning thought process, you have thus used your LMS to spark an energetic and engaging debate when the class comes back together. You get to focus on deeper issues, enhancing future assessment of their learning, and again use your LMS to capture the main points of the discussion and analyze student responses. Assessment becomes ongoing, not a snapshot effect.
Assessment is Not a Four-Letter Word
More than just a “test,” assessment is a continuous process of diagnosing existing student knowledge and readiness for learning, collecting both formal and informal data during lessons in real time, summative experiences, and using all of this information to drive the next day’s instruction. When assessment is valid, reliable, fair, engaging, and tells you something useful about student learning, you’ve built an assessment to last.