Good Assessment Gone Bad

Many teachers find the task of designing an assessment almost as much of a challenge as the Assessment is for their students. Perhaps the difficulty can be found within the stages of an assessment's design from initial concept to its use with a group of students. My goal here is to identify where we might go wrong with our assessments and locate the point at which Good Assessments Go Bad.

Typically when we think about an assessment we have the best of intentions. We want to see what it is that the students have learned, to check that our teaching has resulted in the desired learning. What we don't notice is that we have already made our first mistake and our assessment is  on the road to ruin. We have imagined that we can have a device, a test, a question, an assignment that will provide us with the answer we seek. But if the assessment is not an integral part of our teaching and of the student's learning it will be inherently disconnected from the process of learning. Even worse if it is placed at the end of the process the results will be of little use to those to whom they matter most, the students.

But our assessment is only part of the way towards going bad. The next stage in its downfall comes in the form of external pressures. We also want our assessment to inform our reporting and we want to it to be of value when allocating grades. We need it to be fair, which translates into the 'same for all students'. We want it to place students along a bell curve and as such it is inherently designed so that half of the students will underachieve. We want it to produce data we can readily analyse, so we design it to produce a number. Our assessment, that started life with such an honest goal, is on the verge of turning bad.

The final stage is when we consider our needs in the process. We want an assessment that is easy to administer and easy to mark. We are, after all, time poor. We are also certain that it will be the teacher who marks it and maybe we should give the task to one teacher to ensure equity of marking. Our assessment has undoubtedly gone bad. It is now a 'test' and sadly as this is what many of us are used to from our days as students we barely shed a tear at its demise.

But does it have to be this way, is it inevitable that assessments will 'go bad'. I hope not and the designers of the 'Teaching For Understanding' programme agree.

Assessment needs to be an inherent part of the teaching/learning process. For those who follow 'the learners way' it is focused on the needs of the learner. It is a tool for an effective teacher to use on a regular basis to check their learner is headed in the right direction. A feedback loop that guides their thinking and keeps track of their progress. It never becomes a thing that is done at the end of a unit. It is instead the sum total of every evaluation that the teacher and more importantly the student makes as they engage with their learning.

A new edition to our teaching team (1) has reminded us of the process of 'Traffic Lighting' progress. A simple set of questions asked frequently allows the students to give feedback on their level of understanding. It is a risk free process for the learner and they recognise that it is a part of their learning. Through a simple silent gesture they indicate that they have understood the lesson, are not quite sure or are needing extra support. A simple assessment that immediately leads to an evaluation of the learning that is occurring in the room and as needed an adjustment of the process for all involved.

Teaching for Understanding describes assessment as an essential part of the process of learning. Through simple metaphors they describe how the process of evaluating an athletes performance from training sessions to the playing field is a positive example of assessment in action. The coach is constantly assessing the players performance and constantly giving feedback. This same process occurs between players and at every stage the player is involved in the process too as they are able to evaluate their own performance. This is what assessment should be like in the classroom.

That is not to say there is no place for concluding assessments but the results of these should never be a surprise. The student needs to have been shown where they are going wrong along the way and be empowered by ongoing assessment procedures that they are involved in. Self assessment is a powerful tool and there is good evidence to support its application in every stage of teaching and learning. The student who is involved in the assessment process along the way will have already identified areas for growth and as a result of their relationship with an engaged educator had access to the support they need. When this phase of their learning comes to an end, they will be provided with relevant and meaningful feedback and tools to assess their progress. This concluding assessment becomes the first building block for the next phase of their learning.

This article by Tina Blythe and Associates forms part of the 'Teaching For Understanding Guide' and presents an easily digested outline to designing effective ongoing assessment. The article clearly states that assessment is 'more than just evaluation: it is a substantive contribution to learning'. The article is worth reading again even, if you have completed the Teaching for Understanding course, as it provides clear examples of what good assessment looks like and could help us all stop our assessment from going bad.

   Read 'Ongoing Assessments from TFU'
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(1) With thanks to Jake Turnbull for sharing 'Traffic Lights for Immediate Feedback' 


By Nigel Coutts