Assessment 101: What are they, and why do they matter?

By Anna Murphy, Rubicon International

Translation: Türkçeالعربية

Quick and without thinking; what comes to mind when you hear the word “assessment”?

When I hear that word, I have anxiety-ridden flashbacks to weekly spelling tests, pop quizzes on French verb conjugations, and in-class essays from which my wrists are still recovering. We know, however, that assessments are more than just rote memorization and regurgitation exercises. Indeed, while traditional quizzes and tests—composed of multiple choice, short answer, and long essays—are important assessment methods, they are only one of many options for assessing student learning.

What are Assessments, Anyway?

Assessments and evaluations are often “hidden” in fun classroom activities. Although painting a Greek Myth on a ceramic pot in sixth grade social studies did not feel like an assessment, I realize now that this project was actually a process for me to interpret and engage with myths and examine ways in which art depicts stories. Likewise, making a mystery-themed podcast with classmates in eighth grade English was an opportunity for us to explore different communication mechanisms and develop storytelling techniques, and a scavenger hunt in third grade PE allowed me to cultivate teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

An assessment is thus any number of broad approaches to gauge student learning. They are an instrument for students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and the assessment method is the means chosen to exhibit these. Assessment methods are various, cross-curricular, and complex, and should be written to reflect these traits. Students are not just writing essays, but developing position papers. They are integrating technology into presentations and working in groups to bring literary text to life. Students learn new skills from diverse methods of assessment, integrate multiple subjects into the execution of assessments, and grow alongside the complexity of assessments. Assessments provide opportunity for teachers to weigh student comprehension, and for students to exemplify their acquisition.

However, assessments also offer valuable feedback to students on their progress and invest students in their learning process. As check-ins, assessments equip teachers with information to better structure curriculum and lesson planning. Assessments also provide administrators with data concerning student progress, allowing schools to become more aware of gaps and redundancies as well as areas of strength and improvement. Overall, assessments are a meaningful vehicle to ensure students are retaining information from standards, engaging with curriculum, and developing the necessary skills for success in the 21st century.

For these reasons, assessments are a vital component of the curriculum mapping process. It’s no accident that the Understanding by Design template allots an entire section of its three-part layout to assessments. Assessments address the question, “What is the evidence of student learning?” and in the UbD template, they come after the standards, essential questions, enduring understandings, content and skills.

After undertaking these initial categories, teachers can then begin writing assessments, remembering that they are a tool for students to demonstrate competency of standards, engage with dynamic thoughts on enduring understandings and essential questions, and apply content and skills.

Assessment Type, Assessment Method, and Assessment Details

When developing assessments, teachers can distinguish by type, method, and substance. Below, we review what these three categories mean.

Assessment types are typically “diagnostic,” “formative,” and “summative,” although they are not limited to these categories. Diagnostic assessments determine students’ prior knowledge of a subject, and are also sometimes referred to as “pre-assessments. Formative assessments judge students’ acquisition of subject matter on a regular basis, and are excellent check-ins for teachers, parents and students. Exit tickets, journaling, class discussions, and weekly quizzes are all methods of formative assessment. Finally, summative assessments are given at the end of units or school terms to test students’ understanding of a subject. Summative assessments allow students to reveal their growth, insights, and abilities.

Assessment methods are any of the various means for executing assessments; these include everything from oral presentations, art productions, and essays, to multimedia reports and group projects. Assessment methods should be diverse so as to engage equally diverse learners and challenge them to work in different mediums and settings. Assessments allow for real-life application of knowledge and skills; as such, they must engage students in the methods needed for 21st century success and grow in complexity as students’ skills simultaneously evolve. For example, PowerPoint presentations in a fourth grade computer class could evolve into multimedia reports in middle school. Or, written trigonometry exams can mature to reports using differential equations to model epidemics in calculus class.

Finally, the details of assessments is the substance. What will the assessment address? Why are students engaging in this assessment?  What are teacher expectations and examples? When will the assessment occur? What extensions and/or additional experiences can students engage in to continue the impact of the assessment?

Rather than assessments being a series of quizzes, essays, and presentations given throughout units of instruction for assigning grades to student performance, assessments should be diverse, multi-layered, and provocative opportunities for student performance and engagement with class material and subject matter. Designing a diverse, multi-faceted assessment experience for students ensures that we are engaging them in all the ways that they will experience in college and beyond.

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