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Getting Out of the Assessment Rut

By Emma McDonald

As teachers, we tend to get ourselves into a bit of a "rut" when it comes to assessment strategies. After all, with everything else we must plan on a daily basis, student evaluation ends up on the bottom of the pile. Thus, we go back to the old reliable paper/pencil tests with multiple choice or fill in the blank questions. They are easy to grade and take no brain-work whatsoever.

The only problem is that students are generally not motivated with these basic types of assessment. "Why is this even important," you may ask. When students are not motivated by any assignment, including one being used for evaluation purposes, they do not put their best effort into their work. This means that we are not seeing what they actually know or are able to do. Instead we are getting the bare minimum. How then will we really know what has been learned?

Additionally, how can we be sure that the assessment we are using over and over is actually evaluating student learning? We know that all of our students learn differently and yet many of us continue to use only one or two methods of assessment.

The most common methods of assessment are geared for students who learn best through memorization and skill drills. How are we evaluating those students who learn best, and consequently do best, through other means?

When we think of student assessment, we need to remember that it is so much more than just assigning a letter grade. Proper assessment should both measure the progress a student has made and should show us the student's strengths and weaknesses.

By varying the ways we measure student achievement, we can tap into different kinds of learners and accurately represent student progress and achievement. For example, if a student has difficulty with writing, and every single method of assessment in their social studies class requires a large amount of writing, what kind of grades do you think this student will get in social studies? If, however, we vary our assessment tools and give an oral exam or observe the student discussing concepts with other peers, then that student has a chance to really show us what he/she has learned! This particular student may be able to tell you the entire history of the Civil War if asked, but still fails when asked to write an essay about the event. Is that a fair assessment of the student's knowledge of history? In my opinion, it is not.

How else can we be sure that our students are being accurately assessed? Well, it is important for us to know how we plan to evaluate students BEFORE we present a lesson or unit. If you plan to test students using a timeline format, then it is extremely important that you present the information to them using a timeline. Why? Our students need to know what to expect from us. Otherwise, how can they meet our expectations if they don't know what they are?

Think about it this way:
When a person studies for their driving test, they know ahead of time that there will be a multiple choice test and that there will be a practical driving test. Therefore, we take drivers ed and learn all about the rules for our state, and we practice driving a car. How many people do you think would pass the driving test if they never got into a car to practice? Additionally, the number of people who pass the written test would decrease dramatically if the state all of a sudden changed it to a fill-in-the-blank test without telling anyone.

Assessment can be quite intimidating for teachers and it is a constant challenge for ALL teachers. Even experienced teachers have to continually check their assessment techniques to make sure that they are still an effective measurement of student progress and knowledge. Take the time when planning your lessons to think about how you plan to check student learning. Jot it down in your plans so that you can remember to let your students know what to expect in terms of the format. In the end this helps both you and your students forego unnecessary frustration.

For practical suggestions on different assessment tools, check out our tip entitled "Alternative Assessment techniques". For additional assessment and grading strategies including rubrics, student portfolios, and modifying grades, see Survival Kit for New Teachers (Inspiring Teachers, 1998).

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