Assessment is a powerful tool in the teachers’ toolbox. It has been shown that effective assessment strategies can influence student achievement more than any other tool at the teachers’ disposal. When I was a full-time science teacher, my assessment strategies were limited to homework problems, quizzes, lab reports, and unit tests. Almost all of my assessments were graded and summative, except for homework. The extensive research on assessment has led to new practices, most importantly the use of formative assessment as a vehicle to empower students to assume responsibility for their own learning and to inform the teacher about his or her effectiveness. (See the article in Educational Leadership on Formative Assessment)
The Quest for Quality assessments, an article by Stephen Chappuis, et.al., makes the case that there are five keys to building a quality assessment program that will be able to inform sound educational decisions on behalf of students. The five keys are:
1. clear purpose
2. clear learning targets
3. sound assessment design
4. effective communication of results
5. student involvement in the assessment process
The authors argue for a balanced system of assessment in which the users, teachers and students are assessment literate.
No Child Left Behind is pushing us (educators) into a corner with regard to assessment. The high stakes, standardized testing culture considers annual, summative tests as valid measures of performance for everyone involved in the teaching-learning environment. Low students’ scores can result in failure for students, poor evaluations for teachers, and criticism for schools. We know these summative assessments have limitations and do not tell the full story of the teaching and learning that is taking place in the classroom. So the question is: how do we tell a more authentic and real story of the situation and how do we empower teachers and students to take greater control over the learning environment? The answer seems to be: a more balanced system of classroom assessment that includes regular formative assessment. The system must take into account the five key factors that Stephen Chappius, et.al. recommend.
When teachers talk in the faculty room, they often complain about the students who don’t care about learning and only care about the grade–the “grade grubbers.” As teachers, we foster this problem because our assessment system is geared towards competition, tests and more tests, ranking, averaging grades, and zeros for incomplete assignments. These practices create a culture in which students worry about their grades and see the grade as indicative of their self-worth. What if we taught for mastery, encouraged cooperation, designed varied, meaningful, and relevant assessments, did not average grades, and allowed students to improve on their performance? I would propose that the classroom culture around assessment and grading would change for the better. Proficiency is about more than the grade a student receives.
Finally, as teachers we are comfortable engaging students in the learning activities we create. However, many teachers are uncomfortable including students in the assessment system they create. Why is that? Do we lack confidence in the ability of students to assume responsibility for the totality of their own learning? Since students are responsible for making decisions about their education, we should have them play a significant role in the classroom assessment system through self-assessment, peer-to-peer assessment, and self-improvement techniques. In their book, Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing it Right–Using it Well (2004), Stiggins et.al. argue for creating a classroom culture that has the student in the center of the assessment system. Shifting from assessment of learning to assessment for learning, the authors discuss the value of formative assessment as a tool to advance this work. They use the three questions based on the work of D. R. Sadler (1989) to serve as the foundation for assessment for learning:
1. Where am I going? [students must understand the learning targets]
2. Where am I now? [students must understand where their learning is relative to the targets]
3. How can I close the gap between 1 and 2? [Students must understand what they need to do to improve]
When a student can answer these three questions, he or she is in more control of their own learning and will more likely accept the challenges ahead without feeling threatened.
Becoming a good teacher is a complex task that requires regular reflection. We have many initiatives in which we could engage in order to improve our practice. From my reading and research in this area, learning more about effectively using formative assessment as a tool, including students in the assessment process more fully, and redesigning our approach to grading to focus more on mastery should be our highest priority.