Considering the Intangibles of Assessments

The topic of assessment is as hot as any in the education community.  With the fast-shifting world around us, the dynamics surrounding content & information in schools has likewise shifted.  The accumulation, synthesis, and output process that has dominated the assessment of learning for so long no longer requires that same accumulation, rather skills in access are far more integral for today’s learner and tomorrow’s leaders.

I had a great meeting with a grade level team this week where we discussed how we wanted to assess a student with some significant, documented learning difficulties.  While the student has great challenges with the retention of large amounts of information, she is tremendously organized and skilled in accessing information from her notes, computer, text etc.

Having shown little proficiency with material from a previous unit, we wanted to reward this student’s effort, skills with organization and access, while also identifying more accurately what she is learning.  We also know how important having success on an assessment would be for her self-efficacy.

Our approach reminded me about exactly what is happening when we give a test.  We are not just assessing how well a student can learn, study, prepare, and respond to test items with a combination of content knowledge and synthesis skills.  A test assesses much more than those areas.  For example,  processing and navigating the test format- what it looks like on the page- is a very specific skill that oftentimes a very well-prepared student will struggle to manage, sometimes resulting in performance that does not accurately reflect content knowledge and synthesis skill.  Further, how the instructions are phrased and how many steps a student must take to respond to a question can create a challenge that has little to do with the content of the assessment.  If there is a separate answer sheet from the test page, that is also a navigation skill beyond the content of the unit.

Another key component is student comfort.  So much has been researched about lighting, climate, sound levels, and time of day that we must consider these items when we look at assessment data.  Student comfort, which is not only affected by these elements, but also by how much sleep the students get each night, their nutrition and hydration, and the highly catalytic social emotional factors that can significantly affect a student’s performance on an assessment.

So while our assessment strategies are evolving, there will still be traditional assessment models used.  But as educators, we need to remain highly cognizant of all the factors that contribute to a student’s performance on an assessment and utilize the results accordingly.   If I observe a 7th grader mastering a pre-algebra concept all week during class and that student does not perform on a test in accordance with what I observed all week, it is my responsibility to consider ALL information I have about where that student is on the learning continuum, and not respond only to the test results.   I have often said that all assessment is formative assessment- this growth mindset has allowed me to grow in my assessment strategies, while also helping my students grow in their learning.  Part of that learning is including them in the conversation about these intangibles  that are part of the assessed skill sets when students take tests.

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