The Dos and Don’ts of Creating Meaningful Assessments

Designing assessments to analyze teaching and learning

One of the most frustrating parts of teaching for me has been assessments. There have been so many times when I’ve felt success in learning with my students throughout a unit only to realize they haven’t learned what I thought or hoped they had. It’s equally frustrating for my students to take an assessment, thinking they’re prepared, only to bomb the test. In my mind, I have prepared them. I spent hours planning the unit, engaging them in the materials, reviewing the material before the test, and creating what I consider to be a reflective assessment that addresses the important material. From my student’s perspective, they have equally prepared. They showed up and put in the work. They studied hard and felt confident with the material but were disappointed by the results. In these moments, I have felt that the trust and collaboration I worked so hard to build with my students was damaged.

Here’s the hard part … the truth of the matter is that the responsibility falls on me. Certainly, there will always be students who will not put in the work it takes to be successful, but the majority will, and if they too are floundering, the responsibility is mine. This was a painful realization for me, and truthfully, more than a little frustrating. I found that I needed a hard reset when it came to assessments. I needed to spend some time reflecting on why I was using assessments in the first place, aside from the obvious that it is a requirement from my administration. I needed to ask myself, what is the point? What is the objective?

We are in an inspiring place in education. Teachers are intentionally thinking about every aspect of the teaching and learning in their classrooms. Classrooms are being transformed into laboratories where teachers are trying new pedagogies, protocols, reflection tools, and any tool they believe will help them reach their students where they are on their learning journeys and connect their learning to the world outside the classroom. One of the most challenging aspects of this planning, learning, and creating, however, is creating meaningful assessments that truly and deeply showcase learning.

Assessment always seems to be the most challenging component of teaching. Unlike teaching itself, traditional assessments have not changed drastically over the course of the last decade. For some teachers, the true purpose of assessment remains unclear, and finding ways to teach through the assessment can be even more challenging. Creating meaningful assessments is an incredibly difficult task. We know that assessments should be viewed as tools for learning and are just as important and informative as the content being assessed when created strategically. Assessments then have the potential to become an integral part of the teaching and learning process, both for the student and for the teacher. Unfortunately, there is not much emphasis placed on creating meaningful assessments in most teacher training programs, and therefore teachers struggle with understanding what constitutes meaningful assessment creation.

Reflecting on the following dos and don’ts of effective assessment creation can help educators begin to explore the purpose of each assessment and provide tips to create assessments that will continue the learning process. When creating meaningful assessments, consider the following:

  • Start with reflection. Have the assessment reflect primarily on the big concepts and skills that were emphasized in class throughout the unit. Use the learning objectives and student outcomes as a guide.
  • Provide students with clear criteria for judging performance. It is important that there be transparency around what you are looking for and how they will be graded. This can be accomplished through rubrics, exemplars, review packets and discussions, sample problems used throughout the unit as formative assessments, etc.
  • Create an assessment rubric for yourself as a grading aid to keep grading honest and objective for each student. Rubrics are excellent tools that provide students with evidence of when they are not meeting the learning standards and that give them a tangible goal to aim for.
  • Provide significant feedback regarding the grading on the assessment. It can be frustrating when students focus solely on the grade and don’t seem to read the feedback, only to end up making the same mistakes again. Try giving the assessment back with only the feedback and no grade, then asking them to make an appointment after they read the feedback to discuss it with you and receive their numerical grade.
  • Allow students to fix wrong answers for partial (or full) credit. If they didn’t learn the material, how can they move on until they do? If we keep the learning as the focus rather than the grade, it makes sense to allow them to further their learning of missed material and try again for proficiency.
  • Make sure that formative assessments are reflective of the summative assessment. Students need to be able to practice testing as readily as they practice learning. If the summative assessment is more traditional (multiple choice, true/false, short answer) make sure that at least one-third of the formative assessments are that format as well.
  • Use the collective student success (or lack thereof) to inform your teaching practice. If the majority of your students miss the same question or section, chances are that it’s not them and it might be your teaching strategy of that particular piece of content. Use the assessment results to inform instruction moving forward.
  • Allow students to take collaborative tests. This is more representative of real-world learning and provides practice at high-stakes collaboration.
  • Use exemplars. Modeling a range of exemplars from poor to excellent for students will help them better understand what quality work looks like.
  • Always provide opportunities for reflection for students. Include a section of self-assessment at the end of each summative unit test. For example, “On a scale of 1 to 5, this unit helped me to further develop my critical thinking skills.” Follow this question with, “Provide three pieces of evidence to support your answer.” When asking students to be self-reflective or peer-reflective, always ask for multiple pieces of evidence to support their opinions as they may be seeing things about their work and development differently than you do. These pieces of evidence can serve as a starting point for discussion. I always give my students points for answering these reflective questions as it will allow for a little boost to their grades and I have found they are a little more engaged with these questions with that bonus.
  • Use authentic assessments whenever possible. Every assessment doesn’t have to be traditional in nature. Authentic assessments might look like reports, journals, speeches, videos, or student interviews. Allow yourself to be creative with the assessment format and be willing to try something new.
When creating meaningful assessments, avoid the following:

  • Approaching an assessment as an opportunity to play “gotcha” with students by asking obscure or arbitrary questions.
  • Creating assessments as a means of regurgitation of material. Students parroting material learned by the teacher to the teacher is not an indication of true learning.
  • Making questions that are “Googleable.” If a student can Google the answer of an assessment question, the question itself is too basic and does not dive into true comprehension.
  • Surprising students with assessments, either with the timing of them (pop quiz) or with the material on the test itself.
  • Testing students on material that was not significant during the unit unless you are scaffolding and using the assessment as a way to reinforce previous learning.
  • Deducting points for things that are irrelevant to content learning (i.e., not putting their name on the top of the paper correctly, turning in the paper late, incorrect formatting, messy handwriting, etc).

When done well, assessments can become an integral part of the learning process but the assessment itself should not be the end of the line for the unit. The assessment should be a story about the learning itself. It is important to understand where the student struggles. If students haven’t learned the material, there should be opportunity for relearning, corrective learning, and misconception destruction if we truly want them to understand and comprehend the material we deemed important in the first place. Ultimately, we assess our students’ learning to know where they are as students and where we are as teachers. To dismiss this important information would be an egregious missed opportunity for collective learning. Assessments, when created strategically, can be used as a tool for comprehensive analysis of the teaching and learning that is happening and where there is a disconnect in that process.