The Purpose of Assessment

During my student teaching my mentor teacher asked a seemingly straight-forward and simple question: why did you give a test after reading that novel?

My response, an obviously silly and meaningless one (even after some thought), was “because it ends the unit.” I thought that unit closure required a test. A test meant we are finished with this; now let’s move on to something else. My mentor teacher said to me, “once you know why you test, you will be ready to assess.” I felt like I was in one of those far east kung fu movies where the novice tries to grab the stone from the old teacher’s hand.

“Ah, grasshopper. Now the learning begins. You must know how to punch, so you don’t have to punch.”

Here’s what I know now:

1. Know the destination. Assessments are created first. I have to know the culminating activity in order to create a road map to it. What do I want students to do?

Once I know the skill(s) to be shown, then I add the content. I like to say “verbs before nouns.” This means the actions are listed first (what the students will perform), and then the content is added (the texts).

For example, if I want the students to compose a summary while I’m teaching a drama unit, I may have the students summarize Act II, Scene 1 of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Additionally, I may add some writing skills the students must show me along the way. This way I meet multiple standards at once.

Assessments guide my instruction. If I know the students will be composing this summary after Act II, Scene 1, then I know what skills students must practice prior to the assessment.

This is a simple example, I know, but it illustrates the point.

2. Assessments evaluate my teaching. If I discover that every student missed question four on an exam, then I know I did not teach that particular piece well enough. If no one is able to compose a concluding sentence for the summary mentioned above, I know I did not do enough to help the students with that skill.

Student assessments often reveal as much about the students’ learning as they do about my teaching. In order for my students to be successful, I must be successful: organized, reflective, and attentive to student needs.

3. Assessments take on multiple forms. Tests are not the only culminating activities. Not only are tests less than real world experiences, they are often incomplete and inexact. I prefer to mix my assessments, possibly giving students choices. Oftentimes, these are forced choices but choices all the same.

Papers, projects, tests, speeches and more are viable assessment options, though all formal. Informal assessments (observation, questioning, etc.) can be used as well. I have even ended units without a formal assessment if I feel it’s unnecessary.

Again, however, I must create a list of skills the students must master, which guides my instruction. Thus, my instruction and my assessment types are guided by the skills students must perform, but everything comes back to a well-structured plan leading to a specific assessment.


5 thoughts on “The Purpose of Assessment

  1. David Fordee

    I am working on a presentation to our faculty regarding Ken O’Connor’s book called “Grading for Assessment.” It is quite a good read. And I met and learned from him in person while in Hawaii.

    I’ll send you the link to the slideshare with the password if you are interested. (I have pictures of my kids in the presentation, so I have it protected)

    1. Anonymous

      have you understood the content of the book?
      do you have other opinion about assessment or the importance of assessment?

  2. R. Schnitzer

    I am currently studying assessment in an educational psychology class, and I think that it is very important that teachers realize what you have said here. Assessments cannot be given just for the sole purpose of ending a unit, nor should they be given just because the teacher needs to grade his/her students on their performance. Assessment, as you have said, should guide our teaching. It should reveal to us whether or not we have taught what we intended to teach, and what we could do in the future to help our students be more productive.


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