Ensuring Valid, Effective, Rigorous Assessments

How can you ensure your assessments provide accurate feedback?

What’s the best way to assess students’ learning? During the past several years, we have developed a process that help us ensure we are using valid, effective, and rigorous assessments with our students—a process that every middle level teacher can use.

Step 1. Deconstruct the standards.

First, identify the standards that will be addressed in a given unit of study. Then deconstruct each standard. Deconstructing a standard involves breaking the standard into numerous learning targets and then aligning each of the learning targets to varying levels of achievement.

In their book, An Introduction to Student-Involved Assessment for Learning, Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappuis cite four levels of achievement:

  1. Knowledge—Focusing on knowing and understanding, such as vocabulary, syntactic structures, numbers, and numeration systems.
  2. Reasoning—Using knowledge and understandings to solve problems and interpret information.
  3. Performance skills—Processing; turning knowledge into action.
  4. Products—Creating “tangible products” that represent the application of the content—for example, a science fair project or a creative writing piece.

Table 1 provides an example of how this deconstruction might appear for a sixth grade math unit based on the CCSS

Table 1
Deconstructing Standards Based on Common Core State Standards

CCSS Standard Understand that a set of data collected to answer a statistical question has a distribution, which can be described by its center, spread, and overall shape.
Levels of Achievement Knowledge Reasoning Performance Skills Proactive Strategies (Products)
Learning Targets • Define statistical question and distribution.
• Identify center, spread, and shape of a distribution of data.
• Read/consider scenarios; determine the need for data to be collected.
• Develop an appropriate statistical question to collect data.
• Compare and contrast data collected to other pools of data.
• Collect, organize, and analyze data.
• Report/display data based on a statistical question.
• Report data to an interested or affected audience.

Step 2: Align items and levels of thinking.

When the specific learning targets have been derived from the standard, consider the assessment you will use to determine if students have learned the material. This assessment may be a traditional paper-pencil test with multiple-choice questions, matching, and short-answer items, or perhaps a performance-based assessment such as a project or lab. Regardless, the assessment must align with the learning targets derived from the standard(s).

Additionally, the items within the test (or the expectations within a project) must cover a variety of critical-thinking levels. A chart or table works well to track the alignment between learning targets and items and to examine the distribution of critical-thinking items. Table 2 illustrates the beginning of the process using Bloom’s Taxonomy: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. (Webb’s Depth of Knowledge could also be used.)

Table 2
Tracking the Alignment Between Learning Targets and Assessment Items

Learning Targets Assessment Items Bloom’s Levels
K C App An S E
Define statistical question. Multiple-choice question X
Identify center and spread. Multiple-choice question X
Read/consider scenarios to determine need for data. Scenarios related to statistical questions X
Create appropriate statistical questions. Scenarios requiring development of statistical questions X
Collect, organize, and analyze data. Group-based performance task (lab or project) X
Report/display data based on question. Group presentation of lab or project X X

Step 3: Create valid and reliable assessments.

Before actually implementing assessments, ensure that the assessment items are valid and reliable.

Validity relates to the interpretation of results. Can a teacher make accurate assessments about a student’s knowledge and skills based on the student’s outcomes on any particular assessment? If the assessment tool is measuring what it is supposed to be measuring, it’s much easier for the teacher to recognize the knowledge and skills of each student.

Reliability focuses on consistency in a student’s results. If the assessment tool is reliable, the student should score the same regardless of the day the assessment is given, the time of day, or who is grading it.

If an assessment is valid, it will be reliable. However, just because an assessment is reliable does not mean it is valid. To promote both validity and reliability in an assessment, use specific guidelines for each traditional assessment item (e.g., multiple-choice, matching). Use the guidelines in Table 3.

Table 3
Guidelines to Promote Validity and Reliability in Traditional Assessment Items

Matching Items
Directions refer to specific headings and address “extra response.” Right column “answers” listed in alphabetical/ numerical order.
Specify point value for each response. Right column contains one more item than left.
Only one accurate response to the question. The elements in each column are homogeneous.
Items clearly indicate the desired response. Each column has at least 7 elements, and neither has more than 10 elements.
Answers are placed on specified location (no lines). Item strongly aligns with learning target(s).
Column headings are specific and descriptive. No writing/grammar/spelling errors.
Fill-in-the-Blank Items
Point value is specified for each blank. Missing information is limited to 1–2 words.
Item clearly indicates the desired response. Item strongly aligns with learning target(s).
There is only one accurate response to the question. No writing/grammar/spelling errors.
Multiple-Choice Questions
Point value is specified for each response. Options do not include “all of the above” and “none of the above.”
Stem is written in the form of a question. All answer options are of similar length.
Question clearly indicates the desired response. Item strongly aligns with learning target(s).
There is only one accurate response to the question. No writing/grammar/spelling errors.
Four plausible options are provided.
Short-Answer Questions
Point value is specified for each response. There are multiple correct responses.
Application and higher-order questions are included. Item strongly aligns with learning target(s).
Question clearly indicates the desired response. No writing/grammar/spelling errors.
Item asks for 3–5 distinct elements only.
Essay Questions
Essay question is clear and includes multiple components. No lists of factual pieces of information.
Rubric is used and point value is specified for each component. Item strongly aligns with learning target(s).
Focuses on higher-order critical thinking. No writing/grammar/spelling errors.
No “right” answer; multiple possible responses.

Step 4: Take items to the next level with rigor and relevance.

Teachers are asked to increase the rigor of their assessments but are not always given useful ways of doing so. A good place to start is with items you already have. Here are some fundamental components of rigor and relevance and ways to increase both in classroom assessments.

With rigorous assessments, the goal should be for the student to move up Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder. That entails adding reflective components and encouraging critical and creative thought. With increased rigor, students:

  • Think accurately and with clarity.
  • Identify and consider multiple meanings.
  • Engage in disciplined inquiry and thought.
  • Work outside the norm.
  • Transfer knowledge to various situations.
  • Adjust approach when thrown a curve ball.
  • Tolerate uncertainty and persevere.

Ensuring relevance means students can make a connection to their lives. The assessments are interdisciplinary, contextual, and authentic. Examples include authentic problem-solving tasks, simulations, and service-learning projects.

You can see the difference between low rigor/relevance and more rigor/relevance in these examples:

  • Low rigor/relevance: What are the factors of production? What is consumption?
  • More rigor/relevance: Create a flow chart or diagram that shows the factors of production and your role as a consumer.

Step 5: Make assessment part of planning … not an afterthought.

To assess effectively, it is important to think about assessments prior to creating lesson plans. For the summative, end-of-unit assessments, consider what you want your students to know and be able to do, then plan lessons with this knowledge and these skills in mind. By doing so, you can ensure you are engaging students in learning activities that lead them to success on the summative assessments. Deconstructing standards and drafting assessment items facilitates this outcome.

Fast, Fun, Functional

In addition to summative assessments, it’s important to formatively assess students within instructional units so they don’t get lost along the way. The formative assessments serve as a guide to ensure you are meeting students’ needs and students are attaining the knowledge and skills being taught.

Quizzes are, of course, a great way to achieve this, but there are other effective ways to formatively assess student learning. Here are our top fast, fun, and functional formative (F4) assessments:

  1. Bell ringer: Ask a question at the beginning of class; ask the same question at end of class to determine student learning.
  2. Partner interviews: Students interview each other and record responses. The teacher provides one question and each student creates the others.
  3. Exit slips: Mix it up. Students can post sticky notes on the door as they leave the room. Ensure higher-level items are included as appropriate.
  4. Journal of learning: Once a week, students write their key understandings of the content. There’s potential for critical and creative thinking.
  5. Electronic response systems: Track individual student responses using programs like Google forms, clickers, and KahootIt.
  6. Seven-word summary: Students summarize the lesson in seven words. This allows the teacher to gauge students’ understanding of key concepts.
  7. Students as teachers: Provide students with the work of a previous (anonymous) student and have them grade or evaluate the work for understanding of the concept.

Gaining Clarity

For assessments to be effective for both teachers and students, it is imperative to use a backwards-design approach by determining the assessment tools and items prior to developing lesson plans. Once you start to plan your lessons for a unit of study, it’s appropriate to refer to the assessment plan and make changes as necessary in order to ensure proper alignment between the instruction and the assessment.

Using the item-writing checklists will help ensure the assessments you create are reliable and valid, which means you will have a more accurate picture of what your students know and are able to do with respect to the content taught.

While it is easy to think about assessments at the end of a unit of study, teachers really need to think about how to embed formative assessments along the way. Quality formative assessments allow teachers to better remediate and enrich when needed; this means the students will also do better on the end-of-unit summative assessments.