Assessment is an integrated process of gaining information about students’ learning and making value judgments about their progress (Linn & Miller, 2005). Information about students’ progress can be obtained from a variety of sources including projects, portfolios, performances, observations, and tests. The information about students’ learning is often assigned specific numbers or grades and this involves measurement. Measurement answers the question, “How much?” and is used most commonly when the teacher scores a test or product and assigns numbers (e.g. 28 /30 on the biology test; 90/100 on the science project). Evaluation is the process of making judgments about the assessment information (Airasian, 2005). These judgments may be about individual students (e.g. should Jacob’s course grade take into account his significant improvement over the grading period?), the assessment method used (e.g. is the multiple-choice test a useful way to obtain information about problem-solving), or one’s own teaching (e.g. most of the students this year did much better on the essay assignment than last year so my new teaching methods seem effective).
We will first explore assessment for learning, where the priority is designing and using assessment strategies to enhance student learning and development. Sometimes a teacher might begin the lesson, unit, or academic term with a diagnostic assessment. These assessments are used to determine students’ previous knowledge, skills, and understandings prior to teaching. This ‘pre-test’ helps the teacher determine what students already know, what they need to know, and to adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the students.
Assessment for learning is most often formative assessment, i.e. it takes place during the course of instruction by providing information that teachers can use to revise their teaching and students can use to improve their learning (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall & Wiliam, 2004). Formative assessment includes both informal assessment involving spontaneous unsystematic observations of students’ behaviors (e.g. during a question and answer session or while the students are working on an assignment) and formal assessment involving pre-planned, systematic gathering of data.
Assessment of learning is a formal assessment that involves assessing students in order to certify their competence and fulfill accountability mandates. Assessment of learning is typically summative, that is, administered after the instruction is completed (e.g. a final examination in an educational psychology course). Summative assessments provide information about how well students mastered the material, whether students are ready for the next unit, and what grades should be given (Airasian, 2005).
Video 10.1.1. Formative vs. Summative vs. Diagnostic Assessments explains the different uses and implementations for different types of assessments.
Video 10.1.2. Formal vs. Informal Assessments and Examples provides explanation of the differences between these types of assessments.
Assessment for Learning: An Overview of the Process
Using assessment to advance students’ learning not just check on learning requires viewing assessment as a process that is integral to all phases of teaching including planning, classroom interactions and instruction, communication with parents, and self-reflection (Stiggins, 2002). Essential steps in assessment for learning are laid out below.
Step 1: Having Clear Instructional Goals and Communicating Them to Students
Teachers must think carefully about the purposes of each lesson and unit. This may be hard for beginning teachers. For example, Vanessa, a middle school social studies teacher, might say that the goal of her next unit is: “Students will learn about the Cvil War.” Clearer goals require that Vanessa decides what it is about the US Civil War she wants her students to learn, e.g. the dates and names of battles, the causes of the US Civil War, the differing perspectives of those living in the North and the South, or the day-to-day experiences of soldiers fighting in the war. Vanessa cannot devise appropriate assessments of her students’ learning about the US Civil War until she is clear about her own purposes.
For effective teaching, Vanessa also needs to communicate clearly the goals and objectives to her students so they know what is important for them to learn. No matter how thorough a teacher’s planning has been, if students do not know what they are supposed to learn they will not learn as much.
Step 2: Selecting Appropriate Assessment Techniques
Selecting and administrating assessment techniques that are appropriate for the goals of instruction as well as the developmental level of the students are crucial components of effective assessment for learning. Teachers need to know the characteristics of a wide variety of classroom assessment techniques and how these techniques can be adapted for various content, skills, and student characteristics. They also should understand the role reliability, validity, and the absence of bias should play is choosing and using assessment techniques. Finally, teachers must consider the practicality of an assessment. Is there adequate time and resources for successfully employing a particular assessment? Much of this chapter focuses on this information.
Step 3: Using Assessment to Enhance Motivation and Confidence
Students’ motivation and confidence is influenced by the type of assessment used as well as the feedback given about the assessment results. Consider, Samantha a college student who takes a history class in which the professor’s lectures and textbook focus on really interesting major themes. However, the assessments are all multiple-choice tests that ask about facts, and Samantha, who initially enjoys the classes and readings, becomes angry, loses confidence she can do well and begins to spend less time on the class material. In contrast, some instructors have observed that that many students in educational psychology classes like the one you are now taking will work harder on assessments that are case studies rather than more traditional exams or essays. The type of feedback provided to students is also important and we elaborate on these ideas later in this chapter.
Step 4: Adjusting Instruction Based on Information
An essential component of assessment for learning is that the teacher uses the information gained from assessment to adjust instruction. These adjustments occur in the middle of a lesson when a teacher may decide that students’ responses to questions indicate sufficient understanding to introduce a new topic, or that her observations of students’ behavior indicates that they do not understand the assignment and so need further explanation. Adjustments also occur when the teacher reflects on the instruction after the lesson is over and is planning for the next day. We provide examples of adjusting instruction in this chapter and consider teacher reflection in more detail in Appendix C.
Step 5: Communicating with Parents and Guardians
Students’ learning and development are enhanced when teachers communicate with parents regularly about their children’s performance. Teachers communicate with parents in a variety of ways including newsletters, telephone conversations, email, school district websites, and parent-teacher conferences. Effective communication requires that teachers can clearly explain the purpose and characteristics of the assessment as well as the meaning of students’ performance. This requires a thorough knowledge of the types and purposes of teacher-made and standardized assessments and well as clear communication skills.
We now consider each step in the process of assessment for learning in more detail. In order to be able to select and administer appropriate assessment techniques, teachers need to know about the variety of techniques that can be used as well as what factors ensure that the assessment techniques are high quality. We begin by considering high-quality assessments.