Assessment – What is it Good for?

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In my last post I talked about throwing exams out.  In this one, I’ll discuss how to use them.

I believe the greatest mistake made with assessments is that they are viewed as an indicator of worth, either the student’s or the teacher’s.  An assessment does not tell you if a student is smart, a hard studier, or good at English.  An assessment does not tell you how effective a teacher is or how much they should be paid.  Tests should never be used in the sense of pass/fail for either teachers or students.  Using tests in this way ignores the realities that most tests are not designed well, don’t necessarily measure what we want them to measure, don’t take into account the level and needs of the students, and don’t encourage mistakes or skill development.

Assessments are merely a tool like any other in the teacher’s toolbox.  If used correctly, an assessment can show you where students are struggling and what areas were not taught well.  If the class average is 80% and Jimmy only got a 20%, it’s  a good bet he needs some extra help.  If everyone got that question about the present perfect wrong (not that anyone ever really understands the present perfect :P ), it’s probably because it wasn’t taught well.

The greatest value of assessments come from the practices we put into place after viewing the results.  Assessments should help us determine where to go next.  If Jimmy is doing so poorly, we now need to find out why and come up with a plan to help him to better.  If none of the students understood the present perfect, we need to find out where they are confused.  We then have to look back at our lessons on it and determine why we failed to create the conditions for learners to grasp the concept.

Assessment doesn’t just tell us what went poorly, it also tells us what went well.  If all the students got something right, it must have been taught effectively.  We should ask ourselves how we can use elements of that lesson to help teach other aspects of the course.  It also tells us which students are up for more of a challenge.

What do you do with the information you learn after giving an assessment?  Does it influence where your attention is focused, the direction you take, the amount of material you cover, what you review?  If not, maybe you shouldn’t bother giving the test in the first place :)

Related Posts

Assessments – A Look Back at Getting Rid of Them

Crazy or Enlightened

Joe Bower- Why Do We Give Exams?


  • By kylie, August 20, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

    Great post! I’ve personally experienced some bad testing practices, but am also not ready to completely do away with them. I like how you point out how to effectively use tests in the classroom. I think testing is still an important part of education because I think test-taking is an important skill to have in life. I believe learning how to study well and think through options on tests teaches students how to think critically and work under pressure. But, you’re right that the pass/fail system shouldn’t ride on tests. Thanks for sharing!

  • By turklis1, August 20, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

    Hi Kylie, I think you have some good points there. Testing does encourage people to study, which helps them remember. There was a study done not too long ago that showed that student tended to remember more just by being told there was going to be a test on the subject matter, even if the test was never given . Testing culture actually conditions people to try and actively remember material for a test. The only problem with this is, are they being asked to remember relevant information that is personally useful to them?

    I don’t think tests generally tend to help students think critically. In fact, most tests are the opposite and teach that there is only one right answer or that finding a solution is as easy as choosing one of four available options. Scoring is also a problem with assessments. By assigning a score to a test we are implicitly telling students how “smart” they are rather than just showing them what they need to work on.

    Working under pressure I would definitely agree with However, I feel there are other ways to do that in a classroom without the need for high stakes assessment.

    Definitely good points all around and they stopped to make me think. I’ll have to think about them a little more and maybe I’ll come back to this topic in another post :)

  • By Aaron, August 20, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

    I think one of the problems with traditional assessment is that they assess knowledge at that point in time, but have no way of evaluating the learning process itself. If all the students get a 50%, we know that they don’t know the information, but we have no way of understanding “why” they don’t know it. I think we need to find new, creative ways to evaluate knowlege, but if we are to be effective teachers, we also need to be able to effectively evaluate the whole process.
    And I think your last observation is right on. If assessment don’t have some clear purpose, it may be best to just not assess.

  • By turklis1, August 20, 2011 @ 11:00 pm

    Hi Aaron, I agree that assessments don’t give us an understanding of the process. I think that’s whay I’m trying to say with points where they can be useful. An assessment could tell you there is a problem with the process, so now you need to find out what that problem is and hopefully make some changes.

  • By kylie, August 21, 2011 @ 3:19 am

    Thanks for replying. I just wanted to mention this to you, because it has made such a big impact on me. When I said that tests help students with critical thinking, I was thinking mainly of one teacher I had at University who was a master at doing this. Now, when I think of good testing, I automatically think of him. I guess this leads me to believe that there is always the possibility of a good, accurate, critical-thinking building test out there, but I forget that it is not the norm.
    My history teacher in University had a way of testing (with only Multiple choice, true false, and matching) that made me think through all of the material he had taught in class in order to deduce the correct answer. The questions weren’t matters of rote memory, but rather questions of culture or times that we had to answer based on what we knew to be true about the place at that point in time. In a way many people dreaded his tests, because they always found them difficult, but at the same time, if you paid attention in class, and could articulate your information clearly, you would generally do well on the test.
    I realize this would be harder to do in a second language classroom, and teachers must be more inventive in their means of assessment . . . but that’s where I was coming from. I’ve allowed a very respected teacher’s tests to positively color my thinking of assessment!
    I do totally concur with you however, that most testing situations are not accurate reflections of what work a student has accomplished during his time. Last year, I had a good student, after failing the midterm come into my classroom angry and tell me flat out that he wasn’t going to do anything because it wouldn’t help anyway. He could try and try, and he would get the same score as the person next to him who did nothing, so why put in the work? So . . . I’m with you also on the problems of testing. Thanks for making me think!

  • By turklis1, August 21, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

    You’re right Kylie, it’s not always the tool, so much as how you use it. Thanks for sharing your story about your History teacher. I’d be very interested to see what his/her tests looked like.

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  1. What I’m Reading Today . . . 8/20 « Just a Word — August 20, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

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