What Are Assessments For, Really?

The second part of the article ‘Reform and the Senior Secondary School‘, from Teachermagazine.com.au, has got me thinking about assessment.

What do we really use assessments for? I’d like to quote part of the article, in case you don’t get around to reading it.

Increasingly, assessment processes are being expected to provide information about the knowledge, skills and understandings that learners can demonstrate at the time of assessment. Information about what a person knows, understands and can do is being sought in an absolute sense, independently of how those capabilities were achieved.

Assessment information of this kind can be contrasted with more traditional uses of assessment to grade and compare. For example, a grade of C+ or a test score of 65 per cent often provides little or no useful information about what a student knows, understands and can do. Similarly, a reading age of 6.4 or knowledge that a child performed at the 75th percentile for their age provides little or no information about the child’s reading skills. And an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 89.5 conveys no substantive information about what a student has achieved. Many assessment processes are designed more to judge, grade and compare students on how well they have learnt what they have been taught than to establish, understand and communicate what they know and can do.

My own experience with assessments is a case of ‘what can you do in this exact scenario, on this day’. That holds true for assignments and exams. When you get your grade back, it’s a case of ‘this is how good you are at this’. And then that’s it. Very rarely are you given a chance to improve your knowledge, or fill gaps you may not have realised you had, or go back over the work in any way at all. You simply move on to the next topic with no true regard for whether you understood that last one well or not, or whether you gained the necessary skills or not.

In my last post I mentioned a school that has developed a complex, competency-based assessment matrix. It is detailed enough and written in such a way that students can track their competency of the subject requirements, and perhaps the most important part, the system is designed for them so that they can spend the time needed to achieve the competency. Regardless of whether that takes them a couple of weeks or a couple of months, they are given the chance to build competency on topics and skills.

In this case, assessments are much more regular and not based on an end-of-unit design with a ranking or grade in mind at the end. It’s an ongoing, ingrained part of the education process, taken more as ‘let’s see where you’re at’ rather than ‘lets see how well you did’.

I know as teachers we are able to set as many competency assessments throughout the unit as necessary, and we use these to inform our teaching for the remainder of the unit. But once that unit is finished, the students get their grade and we move on. The grade itself tells exactly nothing about what the students understand or are capable of.

I know our grades are supposed to say how the students are in relation to where they are expected to be, but for the majority of students and their parents, they don’t have the reference material to tell them exactly what that means. They just see the grade and think that the student is performing well or not. You got an A in science! Great! But what do you actually know? What can you actually do? Where are these skills and knowledge transferable to, what can you do with them?

I’d love to try out a different form of assessment where grades were replaced with competencies. Perhaps a project for myself for next year?

 


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About the Author:

Emily is a secondary science teacher. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, creating hilarious teaching memes, and drinking tea and wine. You can see more posts from Emily here!

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