Assessment is both a cornerstone of measuring learning and a point of contention between educators and policymakers. Most educators agree that learning must be evaluated to track student progress, but many also resent that high stakes testing determines public school funding, teacher salaries and children's futures. While many educators want to see more authentic forms of assessment become the standard in public education, decades of policies and practices reinforce the current system.
“When we innovate in schools, we need to do so with care,” said Bernard Bull, assistant vice president of academics and education professor at Concordia University, in a Global Education Conference presentation. Bull calls assessment one of the “load bearing” walls in education, a long-standing practice and belief system that can’t be removed or changed easily. Any innovations to assessment must be done carefully, and whatever replaces the current system must be well thought out.
Bull’s primary research focuses on innovative teaching practices around the world. Initially, he tried to steer clear of assessment, but soon realized changing education without touching assessment would be nearly impossible. “I realized it was often one of the barriers that got in the way of innovation, so I’ve spent a great deal of time understanding how it works,” Bull said.
Most education systems use a version of a numerical scale or percentage system to rate students. In the U.S., that number often converts into a letter grade, A-F, but Bull points out that individual schools define letter grades differently. And he points out that the criteria that determine grades could have unintended consequences for students' ability to achieve the highest grade.
“There are a number of things that influence the grades that one gets, and it’s not always what we think it is,” Bull said. For example, many classes in the U.S. assign a grade by tallying up cumulative points on all tests, quizzes, assignments, and projects throughout the semester. But quizzes given early in the course tend to benefit those students who come into the class with prior knowledge of the subject. If a student has a mother who's a chemist, for example, or a father who's a history buff might perform better on early assessments because she’s familiar with the material.
Even if two students finish the course with the same level of understanding, the student without prior knowledge won’t likely achieve the top grade because low scores on early quizzes would have penalized her. Without realizing it, educators could be biasing the class towards a few students with the sequencing of summative assessments.
VALUE OF FORMATIVE ASSESSMENTS
The presence or absence of formative assessment also has a big influence on grades. “By formative feedback, I’m referring to low stakes feedback that has little to no affect on the final grade in the class,” Bull said. He’s describing important incremental feedback a teacher gives students about how they're meeting class expectations, allowing students to adjust study habits to improve performance. “If a course lacks formative feedback, that’s often a strong drawback,” Bull said.
Bull says another good way to tell if a grade gives valuable information about student learning is if the test has a high “inter-rater reliability” score. “If the exam is set up so that one teacher grades and gets a high score and another teacher gets a low score, then it has low inter-rater reliability,” Bull said. When that happens, it indicates that the test isn’t objectively assessing the learning goals.
Bull has developed a syllabus test to help teachers analyze their own teaching plans to prevent inadvertent grading traps. Study a syllabus and ask: what is the best grade one could earn without knowing much? And, what is the worst possible grade one could earn while knowing a great deal? “In many courses it’s possible for a person to know a great deal and get a very low score and in other classes its possible for students to know very little and earn a very high score,” Bull said. In those cases, the assessments aren’t truly testing how much students learned in the class.
“I’ve learned a lot about the importance of having lots of low stakes formative assessment in the early part of a class,” Bull said. He also admits his personal bias is towards creating a “culture of learning” instead of a “culture of earning.” In other words, he’d like to see assessments that reward students for genuinely desiring to learn something that will benefit them in their lives, not just earning a grade so they can get out of school.
Creating that kind of culture isn’t easy, but Bull continually goes back to formative assessment as the key. “I find that formative assessment tends to be the most important aspect of a learning assessment plan,” he said. “It has the most impact on a student’s learning.” With formative assessment, students and teachers can continually make small adjustments. This type of low-stakes assessment also makes it easier for teachers and students to become partners in learning, giving students ownership over their success and asking them to show responsibility for improvement.
There are several movements taking shape in schools around the world that try to move away from summative assessments linked to a grade, instead giving more substantial feedback to students. One is the standards-based method, which details core competencies that a student should have learned by the end of the course, scoring each individually. In the U.S. this is often called mastery-based learning and some argue that the Common Core State Standards are based on this model, while others dispute that claim. A standards-based system should identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses, Bull said.
Another model more common internationally than in the U.S is is the grade-less report card, where words like "outstanding" or “needs improvement” are used in place of letter or number grades.
A still less common form of assessment are digital or paper portfolios that display a collection of student work. “It’s a very reflective process,” said Bull. It works best if students analyze their own body of work to determine what artifact best demonstrates what they’ve learned. Describing why the artifact meets the standard helps them identify their own learning gaps.
A few schools are experimenting with a narrative report card, where the teacher gives written assessments of students’ strengths and limitations. Some colleges primarily use this method, but in K-12 education it is often limited to independent schools where smaller class sizes make it more feasible.
“When I look at all of these possibilities it reinforces in my mind that the traditional grading system that I see dominating the United States needs to be set aside or at least bolstered by some of these practices to promote a rich culture of learning,” Bull said. Right now, assessment is something done to students, rather than a participatory part of education.