Damian Cooper

Damian Cooper

Education Consultant






Talk About Assessment

Questions and Answers


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Questions and Answers


There are many possible answers to every assessment question. Deciding on the best answer requires us, whatever our role, to reflect on the primary purpose of our work - to promote learning for all students. Here is a sampling of the kinds of questions Iím asked daily.

check What other kinds of assessment can I use besides written work?
All students benefit from a balanced approach to assessment that provides them with opportunities to demonstrate their learning by showing, talking about, and writing about what they have learned. Many students will be seriously disadvantaged if they are limited to demonstrating their learning exclusively through written work. When designing a balanced approach to assessment, teachers should strive for an appropriate balance of performance tasks, oral tasks, and written tasks. (See Section III of Talk About Assessment)
check What do I do about the student who merely wants to pass and doesn't
care about excellence?

Lack of motivation to produce quality work may be the result of boredom, poor self-esteem, the absence of role models at home, or other factors. Teachers can increase the motivation of students by setting clear, relevant and achievable goals for learning, by assigning engaging and authentic tasks for students to complete, by providing frequent oral feedback while students are working, and by demonstrating through their words and actions that they believe in the capacity of all students to be successful.
In addition, parental contact is necessary to ensure that you are not working alone in your efforts. That said, there will always be some students who choose to do minimal work - or less! Don't blame yourself. Teachers do not fail students. But some students choose to fail themselves!
check Should students be allowed to redo tests and assignments to get a
higher mark?

This question demands that we ask the most fundamental question about our role as teacher: "Is my task to sift and sort students into high, average and low achievers, or is it to do all in my power to help all students be successful?"
If my role is the former, then I would not allow students to redo work since this would make it far more difficult to "sift and sort". If, on the other hand, I see my role as helping all students be successful, then I would not only allow but insist that students redo work until it meets an acceptable standard.
To better understand this question, we might again use the analogy of the Driving Examiner. Does the examiner accept sub-standard performance on the driving test and award the student a partial driver's licence? Or does the examiner indicate to the student those skills that did not meet the standard, instruct him to practice them further, and make an appointment to retake the test? The notion here is that there is a set of critical driving skills that must be mastered in order to be accredited as a driver. Should learning in school be any different?
check When students come into my class in September, they're all at
different levels. How do I deal with this?

The first order of business at the start of a new year is to assess students' prior knowledge and skill levels so that you will be able to make appropriate instructional decisions. This involves conducting a wide variety of initial or diagnostic assessment activities. See Section II: Diagnostic Assessment in Talk About Assessment.
check What is assessment for learning?
"Assessment for learning" is a term introduced by the Assessment Reform Group, based at King's College, Cambridge, England. It is defined as "any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting students' learning. It thus differs from assessment designed primarily to serve the purposes of accountability, or of ranking, or of certifying competence."          Black, Wiliam et al. 2004
Assessment for learning may include both diagnostic(initial) tasks and formative(ongoing) tasks.
check What is assessment of learning?
"Assessment of learning" is a term introduced by the Assessment Reform Group, based at King's College, Cambridge, England. It refers to assessment that is designed, primarily, for purposes of accountability, or of ranking, or of certifying competence.
Assessment of learning includes summative and culminating tasks that are designed to assess what students have learned after a prescribed period of instruction.
check How do I modify assessment for students with special needs?
When assessing the achievement of students with special needs, teachers need to:
  • Compensate (provide an accommodation) for whatever exceptionality the student might have so that he/she is not disadvantaged by that exceptionality e.g. allowing a student with a writing deficit to respond orally to a comprehension task

  • Hold the performance standard constant for whatever learning target is being assessed e.g. the standard expected on this comprehension task.

If an accommodation is not provided, the assessment may be invalid. In the example above, rather than assessing the intended target - comprehension - the student's performance will reflect the writing deficiency.
Once the accommodation is in place, the performance standard must be the same as it is for all students. In an effort to assist the special needs student, teachers will often lower the performance standard on the desired learning target. The result is an inflated level of achievement for the student.
check How do I modify my assessment for ESL students?
Similar guidelines apply as in the special needs situation. When conducting an assessment, it is essential to control for the child's English language deficits in order to derive valid assessment information about the other learning targets. E.g. When conducting an assessment of scientific inquiry skills, the teacher must ensure that language difficulties do not bias the achievement data that she gathers.
check How do I know what my students are really capable of if I always have
to provide support to them?

This is why we need to differentiate between "assessment for learning" and "assessment of learning". When students are learning new concepts and acquiring new skills, we need to provide plenty of support - "scaffolding" as it is known in pedagogical jargon. Initially, we provide plenty of scaffolding to support the child. As the child becomes more proficient, we begin to remove the scaffolding (level of support). During this process, our assessment is not judgemental - that is to say, we don't measure the student's knowledge or skill against a standard. We simply coach the student towards proficiency.
Once the student has had time to practice and has received plenty of feedback, we switch to "assessment of learning". Now we want to find out how proficient the child is without the teacher's support. If the student is unsuccessful, then we again provide scaffolding, try a different instructional approach, and revert to assessment for learning until we determine that the student is ready to demonstrate the desired learning without support.
As a rule of thumb, when assessing for learning, provide as much support as is necessary to promote learning; when conducting assessment of learning, find out what the student knows or is able to do with minimal or no support from the teacher. Note, however, this does not preclude providing accommodations for students with special needs. One can provide additional time on a task, or allow the student to demonstrate their learning through a different mode - such as orally, instead of in writing - without "supporting" them by suggesting an answer.
check Can students in the primary grades self and peer assess?
The simple answer is "Yes". The more difficult question is, "Will the self and peer assessment of students in the primary grades be reliable?" The answer to that question is "Probably not, but that really doesn't matter." There are many benefits to be gained by introducing students to the skills of self and peer assessment when they are very young. While their assessments may not be objective, they will begin to learn the skills of assessment and will also develop the interpersonal and communication skills that are intrinsic to peer assessment.
To help very young students understand assessment, use symbols such as happy faces and checkmarks. Most importantly, remember that self and peer assessment should not involve judgement.
check How can I ensure that assessment in co-operative group situations is fair?
There are a few simple rules that will help to ensure fairness in co-operative group assessment situations:
  • Form heterogeneous groups and change the composition if a group is dysfunctional

  • Assign individual roles but stress that all students are responsible for thinking and problem-solving

  • Identify the learning goals of the task as well as the social skills that will be assessed

  • Clearly indicate process and product timelines for the work that is to be done

  • Use key oral questions while students are working to check for individual understanding

  • Assign a single group mark for any tangible product that is created

  • Assess each student individually on process skills ( problem solving, research, etc) and social skills (contributing, listening, speaking, etc.)

  • Do not require students to evaluate (score) each other's work

  • Students may self and peer assess (anecdotal feedback) their process skills and social skills

check How often should I use performance tasks?
A balanced approach to assessment includes a range of performance tasks, oral tasks, and paper and pencil tasks. Many teachers aim to use at least one performance task in each unit. See Section IV: Planning in Talk About Assessment for a detailed discussion of how to include performance tasks as an integral part of your program planning.