Rethinking Assessment

I asked a math teacher if she allowed her learners to use notes or tools on tests. She said, “Absolutely not.” I asked why. She said if they learned the material they shouldn’t need notes. I asked her which demonstrated learning: memorization or application. She said it was application and the highest level of understanding is the ability to transfer knowledge. Ultimately, she came to the conclusion that if learners could not use notes or tools to take the test then there was a problem with the test. My response was, “Bingo!”

As adults, we never take closed book, route memorization tests. Rather, we take what we’ve learned and apply it within a context befitting our career. Surgeons use images, charts, notes, and a team of nurses, anesthesiologist, and other surgeons when performing a double bypass. Mechanics use handbooks, computer printouts, and the help of other mechanics when they replace a head gasket. Mail carriers use maps and notes when delivering mail. Why is it that students, who are developing their knowledge, are given higher expectations than professional experts?

I think the answer lies in our ability to write a good assessment.

Start with standards

Before I plan any lesson I consider what my learners are expected to know.  Our department established essential standards for both English 9 and 10 for each semester.

  • English 9 Semester 1 – Students will use text evidence to support a claim.
  • English 9 Semester 2 – Students will identify and develop a literary theme.
  • English 10 Semester 1 – Students will demonstrate character development/characterization.
  • English 10 Semester 2 – Students will develop an argument to persuade.

At each level, students need to demonstrate these in presentations, writing, projects and leading a Socratic Seminars.  Throughout the course of the semester, multiple units are taught but there is an emphasis on our essential standards.

Writing assessments

Since it is clear that first semester, English 9 students are expected to be able to use text evidence to support a claim, assessments become easy to write. We divide the standard into criteria.  The criteria for using text evidence to support a claim is:

  • State a claim (thesis statement)
  • Provide textual evidence
  • Give analysis (reasons the evidence proves your claim)

The criteria are simple and clear.  My assessments focus specifically on a learner’s ability to demonstrate these.

Learners can create a poster explaining why a Greek god or goddess is the greatest, or give a presentation explaining why Odysseus is guilty of robbery and assault against Polyphemus in The Odyssey.   I can look to see if they have met all the criteria for using text evidence to support a claim.

Echo and Narcissus (1903) by John Waterhouse
If I want to give a test, I can provide reading passages either from previous reading or from unfamiliar texts and ask questions that will challenge learners to meet the essential standard.  For example, I can include a copy of the story of Echo and Narcissus and ask questions such as:

  1. Was Juno’s punishment of Echo fair or unjust? Explain.
  2. What kind of person is Narcissus? What lead you to this conclusion?
  3. Did Narcissus deserve his fate? Why or why not?

While reading responses, I will know if a learner  understood the story, was able to make a claim, use evidence, and provide analysis.

Providing feedback

When I review a learner’s response to the above questions, I can provide feedback.  If the claim needs to be better developed, I can make suggestions. If there is insufficient evidence, I can ask the learner to provide more.  If no analysis is provided I can point that out and reteach it.

When a learner meets proficiency, I can provide suggestions for growth.  I can challenge the learner to provide various types of evidence in their work such as direct quotes, paraphrases, and summaries.  To help learners develop their analysis skills I can suggest they use different types, such as descriptive analysis, inferential analysis, predictive analysis, or comparative analysis. And since I do not give grades on assignments, I am able to promote growth to each learner at his/her level and move them beyond proficiency.

Assessment allows me to know the strengths and weaknesses of my learners. It gives me insight as to how I can challenge every student.  Starting with a specific goal allows me to chart a path that leads students to proficiency and growth.  It provides opportunities to differentiate and cater to every learner while empowering them to tap into their own personal interests.


11 thoughts on “Rethinking Assessment

  1. Great post.
    Question: I love that your started off your post with the talk involving your Math colleague.
    Can you provide some examples of how you might apply this approach in the Math classroom?


    1. Hey there!

      I’m happy to respond in a similar format as Aaron’s post.

      Start with standards:
      This is definitely the first step when considering restructuring assessments. With regards to standards, be sure to think big(ish) picture, rather than very fine skills. For instance, a standard for an Algebra 2 class might be “Learners can solve a quadratic equation.” It’s pretty big picture, as there are a number of different ways to solve a quadratic equation. Additionally, there are a many skills that go along with each method.

      Writing assessments:
      Continuing with the same standard, there are a few schools of thought for how to assess that standard (solve a quadratic). The old, traditional me would say “assess learners on graphing, ZPP/factoring, complete the square, Quadratic Formula, and square roots methods.” But at the end of the day, the standard is “Students can solve a quadratic equation.” Do I care what method they choose? No, not really. Are there methods that I think are more “important” or beneficial for their future (coursework or life…?)? Definitely.

      In short, I would recommend designing assessments such that a single target is being evaluated, with a minimum of four (really good) questions and no real maximum (though twenty seems like overkill). I would also recommend providing student choice and freedom to demonstrate things like decision making, strategy, and imagination in solving problems. To assess deeper levels of understanding, I would also suggest asking different level questions; some traditional, skill-based, others that require synthesis of material.

      Providing feedback:
      This might arguably be the most important piece to the puzzle, as it helps learners continue the learning process beyond the assessment. Providing learners with meaningful, descriptive feedback can help them understand errors and how to fix them. Feedback is more than identifying the error; it’s really about providing that Goldilocks hint…something that’s not too much, not too little, but just enough to get the student to start thinking about what went wrong. I LOVE writing questions to learners as feedback.

      Hope this helped!

      If you want to continue the conversation, feel free to tweet me @mrgarychu

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel that the comments to this post are focused to hard on traditional assessments that people participate in throughout their lives. However, as educators, are we really only preparing a young person to take the next academic test? Is our job solely test prep for the SAT, state test, etc.?

    My impression with Mr. Blackwelder’s post is that he hopes that our educational goals are of more practical purposes; developing skills for which to live by rather than content knowledge to demonstrate. While we need to have a foundation of knowledge to drive our eventual passions, it is what we DO with what we know that counts. For this reason, we need to impress upon our students the value of learning, not an archaic necessity for fact-based knowledge.

    As a parent once shared with me: “We need to teach surgeons where to cut; however, they must be prepared for any and all variations once inside the body. Only practice provides this expertise.”


  3. You definitely make great points, but to a previous point, there are many assessments that prevent students from using notes. When we don’t prepare students to compete in the world they live in, we do them a major disservice. For every assessment I’ve ever taken – ACT, real estate, teacher certification, etc. – notes were not an option. Either I knew it or I didn’t.

    Also, what I found with my students was, if I did allow them to use notes, the ones who knew the content didn’t use their notes and scored far better than the students who fumbled through their notes the entire period.


  4. While I love your argument the struggle most districts face comes when the standardized tests given (Smarter Balanced Assessment or the like) students are not allowed notes, or even the public records of learning we have been building and placing on the walls all year. If my job is held to the “standard” of my students passing this test that does not allow notes, then on my own in-class assessments I should be preparing them by expecting the same no-notes application of skills.
    I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m saying it is the reality right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Smarter Balance Assessment provides takers notes. There are hyperlinks that open pop ups with definitions of uncommon words and it provides them the texts they are to read. There are no route memorization questions on the SBAC.


  5. Aaron, it sounds so simple when you explain it! I wonder if you ever touched base with the math teacher. Did she’s convert? Interested to see a Math example 😄. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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