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Extreme Test Makeover: Assessment Overhauls

From teacher preparation programs to in-school professional development, a common topic is assessments and data-informed instruction. While most teachers I've come across joined the profession for admirable reasons such as making a difference in kids' lives or improving school for students, assessment and grading come with the territory. 

Assessment is an undeniably useful tool in improving student outcomes and learning—when we use it correctly. Intentional assessment also provides an opportunity for students to bring their learning together and create real-world products. It helps students see the value of the content in their world.

Overhauling the Assessment

You can best implement an assessment overhaul with an emphasis on meaningful tasks. This requires teachers to move away from administering tests just for the grade or to wrap up a unit. There are three ways we can effectively overhaul assessments we use in our classrooms starting today, without buying into a new product or spending hours in training. The three focuses of an assessment overhaul should be: 

  • Emphasis on authentic tasks
  • Focus on student learning through assessments rather than outcomes
  • Expanding options to provide choice for students

Authentic Tasks

Initially, as you begin your assessment overhaul, you should focus on incorporating authentic tasks into your units. These tasks can be formative or summative assessments of student learning. The key to developing authentic tasks is identifying real-world activities or uses for the information that students are being asked to learn and integrating them into lesson plans. 

For example, rather than giving a traditional test on perimeter and area, you can ask students to design a garden with multiple boxes and identify materials they need to build and fill the boxes. Authentic tasks typically involve additional skills that can benefit student learning as well, such as using online resources or reinforcing prior skills. Students will also appreciate the opportunity to engage in new and exciting tasks.

Allow Retakes

The second method of overhauling assessments rests on the laurels of an unpopular opinion: always allow retakes and corrections. The opportunity to improve a grade is a more meaningful teacher than many of the strategies we use daily in our classrooms. If the goal is for students to learn the content and be able to apply it in a particular form, grading them on a product and saying "that's it" does not help the student. It also doesn't help you to meet that goal. 

Whether administering a traditional paper and pencil test with multiple choice and short answer questions, or engaging students in an authentic learning task, allowing students the opportunity to try again and improve their grade increases their interaction with the class material. It also promotes engaged learners. 

Give Them a Choice

Another way to promote engaged learners and overhaul assessment is to provide choice in learning. In this era of individualized learning, classroom choice is an increasingly popular strategy in supporting student learning. Individualized learning emphasizes each student's strengths, encouraging them to begin where they are and build on their skills from there, rather than attending a prescribed curriculum. You can apply this concept to assessments as well. 

Giving students a choice of which type of assessment they would like to engage in for a particular unit allows them to choose a style that will best demonstrate their learning. When providing choices of assessments, it is important to keep a few things in mind. 

The first is to provide only a few options. If you give students a list of twenty possible final projects, not only will the students be overwhelmed and possibly struggle to pick one, you, too, will likely be overwhelmed creating rubrics and grading. Secondly, try to incorporate projects or tasks that lean on different learning styles so that students can choose one that best fits with their perceived strengths.

A Topic of Debate: Standardized Testing

Standardized Testing is possibly the single most debated topic in the education world. A main catalyst for the tension is that the choice and room for student strengths to shine through do not exist within these types of assessments. Educators of extremely high caliber fall on either side of this issue and do so with extremely strong opinions. 

Proponents of standardized testing argue that there is a need for accountability regarding teaching and student learning. Testing provides an avenue for data that they compare state-wide. Those against standardized testing argue the unreliability of test results that measure student learning and outcomes in such narrow ways, without considering individual differences or learning styles. 

While this type of testing may require the most significant overhaul of any assessment in the education world, the process will be lengthy and politically charged. In the meantime, we can focus on the assessments we choose to implement in our classrooms and give students opportunities to demonstrate their learning in other ways.

The Bottom Line

Through formative and summative assessments, we can better learn where our students are in their learning process and support them as needed. If we use this information effectively, we can improve student outcomes across the board. However, we can also improve assessments by implementing them creatively and allowing students the opportunity to stretch themselves, demonstrate growth, and engage more meaningfully in their learning.

As educators, we must not be willing to settle for implementing the same old assessments year after year. I challenge you today to implement an Extreme Test Makeover in your classroom and begin seeing the results for your students immediately!


Written by Jackie Sugrue

Education World Contributor

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