Assessment Basics

Assessment has been on my mind and so I capture here what I consider to be the basics.

Having just finished the development of a big (think state-wide) assessment, I took a pause to think about all the conversations I’ve had about assessment and decided I’d try to organize those thoughts here, for what I’d say to someone new to thinking about assessment.

The most important thing to know about assessment is that assessment doesn’t just mean test. There are lots of different ways to assess student learning (and teacher performance, and …), which leads us to the second point that not every assessment leads to a grade  because at it’s root, assessment is about feedback and that doesn’t always have to be a numerical or letter grade. The short conversation with a student during office hours where you hear what she thinks about a topic and can confirm and correct, is a type of assessment. The interesting part about the feedback focus of assessment is that assessment is for the student and for the teacher.  Every bit of information reflects on what the student has learned or not learned, and thus reflects on the effectiveness of the instructional technique. In some cases the assessment is primarily about providing feedback to the teacher. You will hear that there are two types of assessments: formative and summativewith formative being mostly about feedback and summative being mostly about evaluating the amount of learning (i.e. grades). However, even the most pure summative assessment (think of a final exam or professional entrance exam), does end up have some formative components at least to the students on how they prepared for the exam, or how their exam taking strategy worked, and for the teacher as to his or her effectiveness (especially when he or she can tie some element of the assessment directly to some element of the class).  Unfortunately, most of us still have to give grades and thus we often have to use assessments to form those grades, but there’s a distinction between low-stakes assessments and higher-stakes assessments. For example, homework should be more formative and can (and should?) use less formal evaluation schemes (e.g completion grades with feedback), while exams and the like should be evaluated more carefully. This brings up the last point, assessments are best when they are carefully tied to specific outcomes. This didn’t come first, because if you limit yourself to gradeable test-like assessments, it is difficult to match up all the learning outcomes with those assessments, but if you can see that office-hour conversation, or that brief give-and-take during class, or even that puzzled glance from your students as possible assessments, then it is possible and pleasurable to look at how and what you do in class and the connection to what outcomes you expect. And as a bonus point, rubrics are a useful tool for both the students and the teacher, especially for non-traditional assessments. As students are not always used to various assessments, a rubric can help them understand what to expect, while for teachers, a well thought-out rubric can help with giving effective feedback and in grading.