Assessment Practices: Encouraging or Damaging?

Our discussion for this month began with the following prompt from John Walcott:

Assessment and evaluation practices are an everyday part of life in schools. We know that helping students reflect on their work can be an important part of the learning process. Therefore, how teachers think about and practice assessment and evaluation in their classrooms can greatly affect the educational experience of their students. From your experience as a teacher and learner, please describe a teacher practice related to assessment and evaluation that you have found to be especially effective and/or one that you have found to be potentially damaging to students’ learning experiences.


Rebecca De Smith contributed the following:

We often think of assessment as the activity at the end of a unit checking to see if students have learned the important concepts that we taught. But I believe that assessment starts at the beginning of any lesson or unit, when we identify key goals and expectations for students. We must have a clear idea of the essential learning that needs to take place as well as the specific skills needed to meet those objectives. To fully engage students in the learning process, we should state these goals and expectations clearly, explaining why the skill, topic, or method is important to explore for today and/or for their future.

Understanding the specific goals of a unit and the different ways to reach these goals will make evaluation much easier for both the teacher and students. Creating assessment tools that accurately reflect these essential concepts and key objectives will allow students to tie their learning directly to stated goals. Using various kinds of formative and summative assessments throughout a unit will ensure that you are meeting the unique learning styles of your students.

Here are three effective assessment tools that I use regularly in my classroom:

  • Pretest. Before I begin any unit or lesson, I need to know what my students already know about a topic. Pretests can take many forms, and they don’t need to be complicated. For example, you could ask key questions about background knowledge; you could have students write what they know about a topic in three to five minutes, or invite them to use a graphic organizer to connect information with their own experience. Pretesting enables me to respect the knowledge my students already have on a topic and helps me to differentiate accordingly.
  • Exit cards. This is a fast way to find out if students have learned the key concepts or have a question about an aspect of a lesson. Ask students to write down one to three important pieces of information they learned, a specific concept they should be able to verbalize, or to let you know if they are confused about anything in the lesson. This is an easy and effective formative assessment tool to help you see if you need to re-teach any concepts or if students are ready to move on to the next part of a lesson.
  • Rubrics: I use rubrics often to evaluate my students. These rubrics reflect my goals and expectations for them on a specific lesson, project, or unit. Rubrics are fairly easy to make and can be tailored to any subject area. Write them clearly enough so students can understand exactly what you are looking for.

Assessments do not need to be tricky, lengthy, or complicated; rather, they need to be genuine and effective, reflecting the essential concepts and specific objectives of a unit. Ultimately, they should encourage students to move ahead in their learning, giving them direction, keeping them accountable for their work, and showing growth in their learning as they engage in important work to become active citizens in God’s kingdom.

Christian Altena added the following:

Once I was a sinner; once I was lost, but now I’m found! Once my grade book was Calvinist, but now it goes to a “shoutin’” church.

For far too long I was a “one and done” type of teacher. Teach the material through lecture, give a quiz or two, assign a paper or short project, and finish with a large unit test. And repeat. If some students didn’t learn the material for a given unit, well then I guess we just found out who the elect were.

So how did I come to know the depth of my depravity? About six years ago, I attended workshops put on by Professional Learning Communities people like Richard DuFour and Robert J. Marzano. There I learned a lesson that should have been obvious to me: Students learn at different rates and they may need unique strategies and require numerous attempts to demonstrate mastery of these things called standards. Hallelujah.

So with the fervor of a new believer, I immediately got to work creating multiple and differentiated assessments and reassessments. I also increased the frequency and forms of assessment (from simple verbal checks for understanding to short written responses and “table talk” among students), so that every day, in every class period, I could gain insights into whether the learning standards were being met.

Another strategy I’ve employed is to give my students (and their parents) more information about the strengths and weaknesses of a particular student’s work on a given assignment. Instead of one overall grade, I gave four: critical thinking, communication, content, and citizenship. This year I’ve gone full into a standards-based grading approach, assessing individual standards according to a simple rubric indicating levels of mastery on a zero to four scale. If a particular standard is not met, then the student and teacher will work until it is. Early unsuccessful attempts will not be counted in the final tally when mastery is confidently displayed. When my grade book was a Calvinist, those low scores remained to be averaged in with the all the other scores, a scarlet number zero.

Changing methods is a lot of work and can leave one sweating on the anxious bench because the end of times approaches! How does one reconcile the grace of multiple attempts with the judgment that must surely come in the form of a final grade? What does one do with the backslider and the non-intentional learner? What about late work? How certain are we that a student has met a certain level of mastery? How can a zero to four structure accurately, consistently, and fairly be converted into the almighty GPA?

Despite these thorny theological questions, the simple gospel message remains: All students can learn. Best instructional and assessment practices are needed to inform teachers, students and parents about the surest course to take with each learner. Clear, accurate, and informative assessments will allow students and parents to be active partners with teachers, removing the mysteries of the grading process, revealing areas of strengths and weakness, and providing encouragement to reach highest possible levels of understanding. Amen.

John Walcott continued the conversation:

The suggestions and discussion offered by Rebecca and Christian contribute to our understanding of issues related to assessment and evaluation in three (at least) ways: First, they build on calls for a new vision of assessment that has the potential to bring noteworthy improvement in student achievement (see, for example, Stiggins 2004). Second, they offer practical suggestions on how to use assessment to enhance student learning rather than as simply a means to report on past performance. Third, they raise questions that are worthy of further thought and discussion.

The perspectives offered here challenge some traditional practices, and I encourage teachers to take a careful look at the ideas presented here, to reflect on how they might use assessment to enhance student learning, and to talk about these ideas with your colleagues.

Work Cited

  • Stiggins, Rick. “New Assessment Beliefs for a New School Mission. Phi Delta Kappan, 86. 1 (2004): 22–27.

The panel consists of:

  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • John Walcott, who is assistant professor in the education department at Calvin College.