5 ways to check classroom assessment processes for quality

I still remember the times I felt tricked by a quiz or test when I was growing up. The test I took to get my driving permit was particularly memorable, and not in a good way. I thought I did all the right things: I studied the booklet, discussed the information with my parents and older friends, and took the practice quizzes. But when it came time to take the test, a sinking feeling set in as I realized the information didn’t match what I studied, and the phrasing of the questions was confusing.

I remember the awful feelings I had when my test results came back: embarrassment, anger, more confusion, and frustration. That assessment experience was nearly 30 years ago! And yet it remains vivid to this day. I eventually passed the test and earned my permit, but there was another, more important outcome of the whole experience. It helped shape and inform my quest to make sure that students who are taking assessments don’t feel the way I did.

From “gotcha” to “show me what you know and can do”

Unfortunately, students—and even educators and caregivers—often feel tricked by assessments. There’s a historical reason for this: the factory-model educational mindsets, structures, and practices that came about in the 19th and 20th centuries are still very much in use today. In a factory model, “gotcha” events are normal, even encouraged. And while the culture and intended outcomes of our educational system have changed, old structures remain, including how we think about, craft, and use classroom assessment.

I know this from experience. At the beginning of my career, I was trained in the old model of how to make or select classroom assessments. The old model was all about “gotcha” rather than “show me what you know and can do.” Over time, I learned how to shift my mental model, which influenced how I thought about and acted on classroom assessment. With practice, I learned how to turn stressful assessment processes into empowering opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge and growth.

Unfortunately, students—and even educators and caregivers—often feel tricked by assessments.

Based on my experiences, I’ve developed some practical tips to guide teachers in evaluating and optimizing their own assessment processes. I’ll get to those in a moment, but before I do, let’s start with the foundation of all improvement work: mindset.

Examine your patterns of thinking

To develop and implement quality classroom assessment processes that empower learners and learning, we must first think about how we think. For example, are we thinking of our roles and actions from a learner-manager mindset? If so, how can we shift our patterns and actions to a learner-empowerer paradigm? I give examples of this in my article “It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment.”

Another important shift we can make in our thinking pattern is from isolated assessment tests or events to assessment processes that are used throughout a learning journey. Yes, a test needs to be of quality, but the process in which it’s used also needs to be empowering and of quality—otherwise we can create more mismatches.

For example, you may be asked to use an assessment that meets robust expectations for quality, such as MAP® Growth™. But if the assessment is not embedded in a larger assessment process of similarly high quality, the test itself can remain a disempowering event for students and educators. In order for assessment to be a “show me what you know and can do” process, we have to check for quality before, during, and after the use of a specific assessment tool.

How to check assessment processes for quality

Here are five ways to audit your assessment processes to ensure they’re meeting the high-quality standards you’ve set.

1. Ensure the best fit and balance between goals and purpose

There are three general purposes of assessment: formative, interim, and summative. As often as possible, type or write the purpose on learning materials so you can quickly check that the goals and purpose are the best fit for where you and your students are in the learning journey. (In case it’s helpful, we review the three general purposes of assessment in the blog post “Understanding formative, interim, and summative assessments and their role in student learning”). This can also be useful when checking to make sure that students have had strong learning culture conditions as well as enough practice (formative processes) before a summative assessment. With practice, students can play a role in helping to check for the best fit and balance between goals and purpose.

2. Match goals with materials

Type or write the learning goal statements (such as content standards or learning targets) on the learning materials. For example, I used to include the learning goal statements at the top of handouts just underneath the handout title. This can be a visual cue to check that the goals and materials match before using them with students. This can also be helpful in engaging your students with reflection and self-assessment. When students have information on the linkage between their goals and the materials in front of them, they can more easily make meaning between these things. If you’re ready to take it one step further, this information can also drive success by helping students form their own goals that connect their interests or aspirations to the learning goals and materials.

3. Match goals with methods

There are four basic assessment methods: selected response, written response, performance, and personal communication. Different learning goals call for different assessment methods. Students need practice with the methods before a test, and it’s helpful to debrief the methods afterward to get their input about how to continuously improve practice and the matching of goals and methods. If we mismatch, don’t allow for practice, or don’t get their input about how it all came together, the process can feel like a “gotcha.” Freely available on the Internet are exercises and resources for matching goals or learning targets with methods. With practice, students can help with this process.

4. Consider inclusivity, accessibility, and fairness

There are various forms of guidance that can help you check assessment processes for quality. Choose one or more that best fit your learners’ context as well as your learning goals, purpose, and methods. There are lists available from the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (JCSEE) or in the textbook Classroom Assessment for Student Learning. To get started, choose one piece of guidance to start applying regularly, and then gradually add more pieces. Even if you are using pre-prepared materials, it is still critical to use quality guidance. Curriculum writers and publishers don’t know your students and their context. Use inclusivity, accessibility, and fairness guidance with your students and keep specific learning goals in mind so you can refine the materials to maximize every student’s opportunity to “show me what you know and can do.” With practice, students can help use the guidance, too.

5. Ask students to inform options

Prompting students to make their own assessment prompts or tasks is an excellent way to make sure that learning goals and assessment processes make sense to them. It’s also a way to share the workload, because with practice, students can make some really great options. Baking in opportunities for student-to-teacher feedback throughout the journey also helps inform how to refine processes so that all students are supported to “show me what you know and can do.” For example, about once a week I cued my eighth-graders to suggest ways to improve our learning practice processes. One student let me know that a tool we commonly used, while fun for her classmates, was a really frustrating and overwhelming learning exercise for her—it felt like a “gotcha.” We were able to adjust her practice options and offer the alternate option to other students as well. We worked together to remove the barriers (frustration and overwhelm) so the exercise did not feel like a gotcha.

Stay a step ahead

Notice that I’ve encouraged you to check for quality assessment processes before you use them with students. Admittedly, I’ve ignored this advice myself waaay too many times or simply felt that I didn’t have the time to slow down and check. When I didn’t check, it just resulted in experiences like my driver’s permit test situation: frustration, anger, embarrassment, and confusion for both the students and for me. While it may feel like we don’t have time to check beforehand, it actually saves us time, energy, and sanity throughout the learning journey.

Also notice that all the tips I’ve shared here include information about engaging students as partners in these processes, empowering them to share the workload while building their self-efficacy. I encourage you to first acknowledge all that you already do to check assessment processes for quality and all that you do to engage learners as partners. Next, choose one new idea. Try a tip from this blog or check out the discussion questions below. It’s not always easy work, but shifting from “gotcha” to “show me what you know and can do” is always the right work.

Discussion questions

  • How are you already checking classroom assessment processes for quality?
  • How do you already engage students as partners in checking assessment processes for quality?
  • What is one next step you’re willing to try? Perhaps there’s a section of the assessment empowerment guidance you can apply to an assessment process you’ll use in the near future.
  • Who or what can help you?

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