Using a simple checklist can help educators design quality assessments
When Ken O’Connor’s daughter was in 7th grade, she was given an assignment that included a detailed rubric. He spent time with her unpacking the rubric so that she understood the expectations. After much hard work, she produced what he thought to be an excellent assignment. When the assignment was returned, she had received a 14/20. Exasperated, her reaction was, “What is the point of doing the assignment if the teacher doesn’t use the rubric?”
Assessing with instructional integrity requires teachers to construct quality assessments and students to submit the best evidence of their learning. This was true before COVID-19, during the pandemic, and will continue to be true after the pandemic.
For several years, Sherri Nelson has served as a volunteer academic lifeguard which provided her with a distinctive opportunity to informally study the quality of assessments provided to students and their impact on student learning. When students were missing multiple assignments, she often met with them to develop plans for completing their missing assignments. This process usually began by printing a list of their missing assessments and helping them gather the materials required to complete them. In his book “Brick House: How to defeat student apathy by building a brick house culture”, Danny Hill recommends that to build momentum, students should begin by tackling the easiest assignment on their list or starting with the one that will take the least amount of time to complete. During this process, Sherri sometimes heard middle school students describe their missing assignments as “boring,” “too hard,” or “stupid.” To her, these were indicators that assignments lacked engagement, clarity, and relevance, and she began to question the instructional integrity of some assessments.
Build it and They Will Come
The need for quality assignments is constant, but particularly important during pandemic learning. When a considerable number of students have late, incomplete, and missing assignments, educators have a professional obligation to examine their assessments to determine if they are instructionally sound and worthy of the time and effort required for students to complete them.
It has been our experience that if teachers construct quality assessments, students will complete them to the best of their abilities. When students submit assessments on time, teachers can more appropriately provide specific, timely, and actionable feedback. This may lead to instructional adjustments and prescribing specific and targeted extra practice for students to build self-confidence and ultimately achieve greater learning. Therefore, we must ensure our assessments possess instructional integrity.
Standards for Quality Assignments
But how do we know that we’ve constructed a quality assessment? To empower learning, every assessment, especially those included in grades, must provide accurate evidence of student achievement. Author Jan Chappuis, In Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, author Jan Chappuis suggests students are truly empowered if assessments help them to answer the three learning questions:
- Where am I going?
- Where am I now?
- What do I need to close the gap or get better?
Essentially there are only three standards for a quality assessment that helps answer those driving questions: clear learning goals, clear purpose, and sound design. Let’s look at each of these in more detail, and be sure to download the Quality Assignment Checklist.
Clear Learning Goals
Both the what (the content standard(s)) and the how well (the performance standard(s)) must be known and understood by students. This means the learning targets and success criteria should be written in age-appropriate and student friendly language. Additionally, when a student receives an assessment, it should be clear what the learning goals are. Students should find the assessments relevant, engaging, and worthy of their time.
Students (and teachers) must understand how the results of each assessment will be used. The evidence collected from most assessments should be used by teachers and students to improve student learning, not to provide a score in the grade book. Occasionally, assessments will be used to evaluate a student’s level of achievement, at that point in time students must know in advance when these summative assessments will occur, and which standards will be included. There must be no mystery, myth, or magic.
An assessment of sound design is typically characterized by the following four components:
- Right method: This component is about “target/method match” and it involves ensuring the type of assessment used is appropriate for the learning targets being assessed; it must match the cognitive level and rigor of the standard(s). Selected response is an efficient and effective method for assessing basic recall knowledge, but the application of understanding and skills must be assessed with performance assessments. For example, if the standard requires students to produce clear and coherent writing, students need to write, not answer multiple choice questions about how to write.
- Well written: Assessments must be clear, unambiguous, and at the right reading level for students.
- Well sampled: Assessment is a sampling procedure. As a result, we must have a sufficient quantity of evidence within each assessment and overall to inform teaching and make judgments about achievement. This means one question/prompt per standard would be insufficient, as the result may be luck, chance, or measurement error. Sampling also involves the type of evidence. When possible, teachers should gather observational, conversational, and product evidence so each student is afforded the best opportunity to show what they know, understand, and can do.
- Bias avoided: Bias is anything that prevents students from performing at their real or best level and thus distorts any inferences we would like to make about the achievement. There can be problems with students, the setting, and the assessment itself. If students are physically unwell or mentally upset, the assessment will not provide quality evidence. If there are problems with room temperature, noise or comfort, the assessment will not provide quality evidence. Additionally, if students have insufficient time or lack the cultural background or resources to complete an assessment, it will not provide quality evidence.
Assessments empower learning when they possess instructional integrity and meet the three standards for quality assignments articulated above. Teachers should collaboratively assess the quality of their existing assessments and refer to the following checklist when constructing new assignments to ensure all assessments possess instructional integrity and are worthy of each student providing evidence of their learning.
Sherri Nelson is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the Brandon Valley School District 49-2 in South Dakota and has served on the South Dakota Association of Middle Level Education (SDAMLE) board since 2014. firstname.lastname@example.org
Ken O’Connor is an independent consultant specializing on grading and reporting. He is the author of How to Grade for Learning: K-12, Fourth Edition, Corwin, 2018 and has been a staff development presenter and facilitator in 47 US states, all provinces and two territories in Canada, and in 35 countries outside North America. email@example.com