Avoiding Assessment Mistakes

Assessment is arguably the piece of the learning cycle we get most wrong. Whether looked at from the perspective of the learner, the teacher, the school administrator, the politician or the parent, assessment is misunderstood and poorly utilised as a tool for learning. The importance of changing this situation is only made more salient in light of the countless research studies from the likes of Jon Hattie & Dylan Wiliam that points to the power of effective assessment. So, what are the common mistakes and how might we avoid them?

Effective assessment is a part of the learning process. In their book "Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies of innovative learning”, Crockett & Churches compare assessment to the processes driving lean startups. The fledgling startup aims to develop a product that is a just viable product and rapidly releases this to market. The product launch begins an immediate process of product evaluation driven by user feedback. Through a rapid process of iteration and refinement the product evolves to meet the needs of the market. This is how assessment of learning should be. The learner feels comfortable sharing their learning in progress, they don’t need to wait for it to be a polished piece of work before they share. Feedback is sought early and the feedback provided is specific and allows for improvement. The learner makes changes and adjustments based on the feedback, the process repeats. With each cycle of feedback the learner moves closer to their goal but the process never stops.

Effective assessment is timely. This is where we make the biggest mistake. Assessment is seen as an end point by the learner and by the teacher. This is made very clear when the assessment is placed at the end of a unit of learning and feedback is then provided after the learning has occurred. The concluding assessment, the final test at the end of the unit send a message to the learner that assessment is the end of the learning process. According to Dylan Wiliam, "It is formative only if the information is used by the learner in making improvements that actually take their own learning forward. That is why to be formative, assessment must include a recipe for future action.” When assessment is only provided at the end of the unit, or the most valued assessment occurs at the end of the unit, it offers no opportunity for adjustment and sends a clear message that learning is not a continuous process.

Timely assessment needs to occur as close to the performance of understanding as possible. If you are coaching a child to catch a ball you go through the process and after each turn offer feedback. “Keep your eye on the ball”, “relax your arms as the ball hits your hands”, “move your body so it is behind the ball”, “don’t overreach”. You back the verbal feedback with modelling of the desired actions, you make adjustments to the throw of the ball to allow for success, you allow multiple practice opportunities and over time you praise improvement even when the growth is small. If we learned to catch the way we might learn mathematics or writing we would be given one or two examples, be left alone to apply the new skill and then be given an assessment of our ability. More than likely the result would be in the form of a grade or percentage and we would be left with few if any insights as to why the ball continually ended up at our feet. 

We value grades and percentages more than quality feedback. The disappointing reality is that when we are given are grade or a percentage as feedback on an assessment no learning occurs. Indeed, the damage goes deeper and impacts our desire to learn. Where grades are offered Ruth Butler found that interest and performance declined, where only comments were provided the opposite was true. If both comments and grades were provided the results paralleled those achieved with grades alone. A grade sends a clear message to the learner that the learning is done with according to Crockett and Churches, and a grade handed down by a teacher removes learner agency from the equation. Apply the typical pattern of assessment and grading to the process of building a house. The foundation is laid and assessed with a percentage for overall quality of say 75% and a B grade. By this stage the framers are on the job having started while the foundation’s assessment was still being processed, when they finish they achieve a percentage of 80%, slightly better than the foundation but clearly with room for improvement. The roof follows, the bricks are laid and in no time at all the house is found to be falling behind code, a building certificate is never issued and the house is condemned. The trouble is the fundamental issues with the foundation and each subsequent step were never addressed. Now imagine the same process applied to a child’s years of schooling and it is little wonder that we have students with significant learning gaps. Sadly, as Lane Clark points out we are too busy moving on to the “Electricity” unit to stop and address any issues.

Assessment needs to be of the learning that matters. We know that the skills which will matter most for success in the "age of accelerations” (See Friedman - Thank You for Being Late) are critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, an innovators mindset and a good grasp of models for problem finding and solving such as design thinking. But, this is not what we traditionally assess. Instead we test for recall of information, an awareness of basic theorems and the formulaic application of knowledge, all of which is easily replaced by machine learning or artificial intelligence. Testing for the skills valued in the 21st century, assessing socio-emotional intelligence and the capacity to function effectively within dynamic teams is difficult to do at scale, so we instead measure what is easy to measure. The trouble is in doing so we assign an inflated value to the parts of the curriculum which matter least and then lock ourselves in to teaching for these skills even when we know they are obsolete. The truly sad part is that the assessments we cling to and that drive so much of what we do in schools, are no longer valued by universities and employers; the very people we designed them to serve. 

Education needs to be about more than placing students on a curve. If the only purpose that years of formal education serves is the ranking of children, then we are wasting our time. The factors which result in individual success are diverse and there are better more efficient measures which might serve our needs. To better understand the confluence of factors which on average result in success read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The story of success”. The emergence of ‘Big Data’ is only likely to provide us with new approaches to identifying those whose life circumstances and biology prepare them for any specific role, but surely this not a direction we wish to pursue.

Assessment needs to involve the learner more so than any other person. Hattie found that the empowerment and self-regulation that is achieved when students become skilled in methods for self-assessment had the highest effect size. Dylan Wiliam identifies three critical agents for assessment; self, teacher and peer. Self-assessment is critical in activating students as owners of their learning according to Wiliam and as such is a critical component of life-long learning where learning continues beyond the classroom. 

If we wish to cling to traditional methods of assessment and view the first twelve years of schooling as little more than preparation for the final school assessment, we need to acknowledge at least one rather disturbing reality; most of what we teach and assess is rapidly forgotten. "From this perspective, the research on educational attainment is especially disheartening. For more than 75 years, studies have consistently found that only a small fraction of what is learned in the classroom is retained even a year after learning.” (Matthew Lieberman (2012) Education and the Social Brain. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 3–9) Unless we take the time to develop assessment processes that clearly reveals to all concerned, where our learners are with their learning, where they are going and how to get there, this situation is unlikely to change. 

By Nigel Coutts

Learn more about quality assessment:

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for k-12 classrooms by Dylan Wiliam & Siobhan Leahy

Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies of innovative learning by Lee Watnabe Crockett & Andrew Churches

The Formative Assessment Action Plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning by Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher

Assessing 21st Century Skills: A guide to evaluating mastery and authentic learning by Laura Greenstein

The Power of Feedback in Review of Educational Research by John Hattie & Helen Timperley

And you might also like:

Thank you for being late: An optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman

Outliers: The story of success by Malcolm Gladwell