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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Is this on the test??? What makes a good contemporary assessment?

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Identifying high-quality assessments for contemporary classrooms, especially digital ones, is an important endeavor for all instructors. #remotelearning #teachingtips #onlinelearning #theresacapra


What makes a good assessment?

It’s a question that does not ooze with passion, and oftentimes it makes students feel anxious and teachers dizzy with thoughts of endless grading. In fact, it’s become a rhetorical question with the answer being, exams, of course! The culture of high-stakes testing born from Nation at Risk and exacerbated by federal initiatives such as Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind have smothered K-12 for decades.

Public institutions throughout higher education have not escaped this trend, far from it. Increased pressure to assuage tax-payers has resulted in a data-driven frenzy attempting to quantify every aspect of the learning experience while neglecting qualitative measures. Decisions about class sizes, course offerings, and grading policies are just a few areas where professor input has been overlooked for number crunching. Overall, the pressure is on to prove that education is an investment worthy of societal support.

As educators, we cannot control the politics of policy--and for those of us who have been teaching for decades, we know, here today, gone tomorrow. What we can control is what happens in our classrooms. We can bring back the intimacy and purpose of assessment. We can collaborate with our colleagues and simply ask , what makes a good assessment?

It’s not surprising that students view testing as an objective rather than an assessment.

According to the Stanford University Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, high-quality assessments measure deeper learning and underlying concepts beyond memorization. They also evaluate the application of content to the real world. In practice, this means assessments should not focus exclusively on exams that develop test-taking skills. However, that is precisely what occurs in the majority of classrooms--knowledge level multiple-choice exams, sometimes with hundreds of questions, are used to measure content acquisition. And despite evidence that standardized testing does not increase cognitive capacity or prepare college students for employment, it’s still the most commonly used assessment.

Traditional high-stakes multiple-choice exams do not mesh well with digital classrooms. Chronic issues such as cheating have become more complex prompting industries to capitalize by selling expensive lock-down browsers and software that monitors eyeballs--all to preserve testing. In light of these circumstances, it’s not surprising that students view testing as an objective rather than an assessment.

What makes a good contemporary assessment?

The expansion of digital classrooms may force all instructors to revisit the seminal issue of assessment, and for the better. Education is changing and we must adapt. Some predictions are that future assessments will be designed in conjunction with employers and the use of technology will lead to more personalized assessments that capture skills in action. As we anticipate further changes to the educational landscape, a more precise question to consider is, what makes a good contemporary assessment?

For starters, good assessments connect immediate feedback to long-term progress. This is achieved through the use of formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments are low-stakes evaluations of how a student is doing that can be diagnostic or informal. Some examples are whole-group discussions, journals, team work, and independent practice. Conversely, summative assessments are cumulative so typically the stakes are higher because they have a significant impact on a final grade or academic placement.

Ideally formative assessments scaffold to summative assessments so that the learning threads throughout the class rather than a big stitch at the end. For example, in digital classrooms discussion boards can be both formative and summative if they occur over the entire semester. A significant portion of the final grade may be derived from discussion boards, but individually one may not have a consequential impact, and with detailed and immediate feedback, students can sharpen skills as they move along leading to a successful summative outcome.

Online learning lends to a more fluid approach to assessment moving students beyond the dreaded, is this on the test mentality. Problem-based learning, capstone projects, and shorter, written exams over the course of the semester are good assessment options for almost all disciplines. Well-crafted student learning outcomes that are measured with enduring assessments may encourage students to view learning as a journey. Just be sure to avoid using assessments as filler. The layering of quizzes, closed-ended discussions, and voice-over lectures creates shallow experiences that are not much different than cramming for a multiple-choice test. Instead, use the expansion of digital learning and technology to usher in new and innovate modes of assessment. Your students will thank you in the future!

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