Effective assessment is challenging work but has the potential to dramatically improve teaching and learning. Our webinar with Professor Stuart Kime from Evidence Based Essentials provided rich food for thought for teachers about the purpose, place and practice of assessment in New Zealand schools. Below are some of the key ideas discussed.
Assessment is a process not an event
Assessment is not a singular event. It is not a test or an exam. Rather it is a process designed to generate inferences about students and actionable and meaningful information. The process involves: (1) identifying a particular aspect of the curriculum that the assessment is targeting; (2) designing and utilising tools or tasks that enable the generation of information about students’ knowledge of that aspect of the curriculum; (3) interpreting the information generated; (4) taking action based on the interpretations. This enables teachers to understand where students are at in their learning, and to be able to teach from this point.
Purpose dictates process
The purpose of assessment dictates every aspect of the assessment process. It is critical that the purpose is clearly identified and delineated and that the assessment process produces information that is valued and needs to be known. If the information is not bringing value or if it doesn’t support effective decision making, then it is not an effective assessment to be using in that particular instance.
Assessment, the curriculum and pedagogy
If curriculum provides the route or structure that students move along in their learning, it is pedagogy that helps students to move along this route. Assessment should be considered one of the pedagogical tools that teachers can draw on to support their teaching of the curriculum. It helps students to know where they are and how they’re going in relation to the curriculum. The curriculum should provide the blueprint for assessment design, identifying where teachers should place the emphasis in their questions. It further is a tool that when used effectively should provide students with motivation, optimism, a sense of agency and hope. It therefore becomes a powerful enabler and supporter of ongoing learning.
The distinction between assessment and testing
Examinations and tests are one off events, which are distinct from but may be used as part of the broader assessment process. While there is nothing inherently wrong with examinations or tests, it is crucial that they are used as part of effective assessment practices. This means that they need a clear purpose, which ideally should be aligned with helping support ongoing planning and learning. It also is important to bear in mind the research evidence demonstrating the negative impact that grading can have on student motivation, and the frequent inaccuracy of the grading process of tests and exams. Too much testing for high stakes purposes can be problematic.
Feedback and assessment
A test or set of questions can be a useful retrieval exercise for students without them receiving feedback on it. However, it is possible to enhance this learning through targeted feedback. Process feedback which focusses on how a student engaged with a task (opposed to evaluative feedback such as a grade or measurement against a standard, or self-level feedback, for example ‘good work’) generally is the most powerful form of feedback. What often gets missed from feedback is reporting on self-regulation. That is, when a student meets a question or task that is challenging, requires greater application or the modification of approach, how well they stick with it.
Assessment during online or distance learning
The general rule of thumb during online or distance learning is to do fewer things better. Think carefully about the curriculum and what you want children to know. Focus on big constructs and the most important learning. Then home in on developing questions and tasks that help students to show you what they know and can do. Try to vary the mode of assessment. You might consider getting students to do a quick multiple-choice quiz, to type answers into a chat box during a video call, or work on longer tasks asynchronously. There’s evidence to suggest that asking students to do short video explanations where they explain a concept or idea to someone else is a powerful learning exercise.
Teachers also should be planning ahead for when schools reopen for all students, to think about the best ways to identify where students are up to in their learning as there likely will be considerable disparity in what children have learned during the lockdown period.
As a parting message, Professor Kime reminded the audience that assessment is challenging but the payoff of improving assessment practice are great and long lasting.