Assessment, in educational settings, can take many forms, such as test scores, teacher observation or informal questioning, but the ultimate meaning, purpose and / or objective of assessment is inevitably up to the instructor. Are we simply looking for numbers to write in a grade book to appease our administrators, or are we seeking a deeper understanding of our students', and our own, capabilities? My loyalty falls behind the latter. Whether for the benefit of our students, ourselves, our school or state, assessment should be directed towards the goal of gauging student learning and comprehension, while at the same time, measuring our own efficiency in obtaining that goal. In simpler terms: We grade students to determine not only what they know, but how successful our instructional strategies / methods are.
Stice & Call (1987) state that "the paramount consideration in evaluation and assessment is to produce numbers by which children can be ranked, labeled and compared". True, each of these declared considerations have their merits; ranking for purposes of scholarship and recognition, labeling to ascertain more appropriate methods for individual instruction (eg gifted or exceptional), and comparison to establish an average level of student competency, but such considerations are only part of the story. As I see it, assessment, documentation and evaluation do more than simply attach classifications to students. They are tools employed to enrich our students' knowledge of themselves and their learning style (metacognition) and our own pedagogy.
Assessment, in terms of grade scores, can be both a motivating and disconcerting force. On the one hand, a good grade can greatly boost a student's self-concept and spur him / her to repeat or surpass such success in the future. On the other, a poor grade can dishearten a student and diminish his / her academic spirit. At either stage, it is our job as teachers to support our students with encouragement, optimism, and above all, assistance. Regardless of the scores received by a pupil, the grades should be used to enlighten the student to both strengths and weaknesses in his / her current understanding of a topic, and then clarify which goal (s) or objective (s) of the lesson should garner more attention from the learner as well as the educator. Although test and homework scores are vital to the extended learning of a student, they in themselves are not a means to an end. Documentation of assessment is needed to add perspective to given grades.
Documenting assessment can have a compound effect on student learning. Single grades tend to have less effect on student erudition than does an aggregated account of the student's work. This means that instead of showing a student what he / she did correctly, or incorrectly, on a particular assessment, which shows only a short-term understanding, demonstrating how the student has performed over time can illuminate leader inadequacies or virtues in their learning. For example, let's say Johnny did not perform well on his most recent math quiz. This does not mean Johnny does not understand the lesson or that the teacher did not explain it well enough; there could be a number of external factors responsible (eg illness, poor nutrition, trouble at home etc.). A single test score under such circumstances can be misleading, but, when the score is compared to the larger picture of grades obtained through a unit or semester, Johnny and the teacher may find that he fulfills well when it comes to understanding mathematical concepts, but has weak application skills. While assembling and documenting Johnny's scores is useful in terms of highlighting the student's progress, or lack there of, it is not enough to really gain full perspective of his needs. Without attaching meaning to his records, accumulated grade totals are worth little to him or his teacher.
The process by which we affix said meaning is known as Evaluation. By use of longitudinal comparison, Johnny and his teacher have identified certain areas in need of improvement and can sinceforth take appropriate steps or make accommodations to enhance Johnny's educational experience. This is the very essence of evaluation, and is, by this writer's opinion, the most important facet to the larger, more generalized term of assessment. Only when students understand what their grades indicate can they kindly realize their focus. This is by no means a one way street; teachers also need purpose to their lesson plans and assessments. When there is a clear, well-defined explanatory accompaniment assessment, teachers and students alike are more likely to maintain a positive attitude towards instruction, as well as a defect and more meaningful understanding of the subject matter (Lu & Suen, 1995).
As for the use of assessment in my own professional career, my teacher education, as well as my own personal school experience, has led me to prefer the application of multiple assessment types.
As mentioned earlier in this paper, single grades usually do little more than mislead students or teachers into false interpretations. Only when assessment is varied can an adequate picture of student achievement be developed. For many students, myself included, have difficulty on large, standardized tests, but conversely, do quite well on localized, teacher-designed tests. This assertion is echoed by Storey (1970) when he states that "The most valid and reliable data available to the classroom teacher is that resulting from his own well-designed, item-analyzed, multiple choice tests" (. P. Xiv). I believe this is true because teachers develop their examinations based on their own expectations, which are cultivated through personal experience and interactions with their students. This is an impossibility with national standardized tests.
On a day-to-day level, I have discovered, through my practicum experiences, students find that pre-tests make it easier to organize important topics during on-going instruction. By informing the students of what I (the teacher) expect them to learn from my lesson, all students show increased retention on post-tests, as opposed to lower scores when no pre-test was given. Unfortunately, giving routine pre-tests before every lesson can actually stifle student learning because students begin to only listen for material covered on the pre-test, and allow all other information to fall to the wayside.
To supplement pre-tests, formative assessments can be used (eg normal question-answer period and teacher observations). One type of formative assessment, as discussed by Niebur (1994), was the use of name cards in her music class. She would choose a small sample of students to observe for the day, then silently meander around the room making notations about their performance on the cards. She did this because she noticed that some students would perform below their abilities when they knew they were being observed. This way, she could make assessments without jeopardizing student functioning, and there before obtain an adequate picture of their abilities. Although I'm not a music teacher, I feel this technique could be useful in determining social and communication skills, as well as assessment of student affect. Although it is important to attend to insuring multiple assessments for students, my most adamant contention concern assessment is not so much what kind of assessments I use, but instead, what types of questions are included in assessments.
"The average test in public schools classes reflects the type of lower-order thinking most students are comfortable with, and measurement is almost always done by using fill-in-the-blank, true-false, multiple choice or some other 'objective' measure "(Shanker, 1990, p. 32). This is what I hope to avoid. With so much stressed placed on Bloom's original and revised taxonomies, not to mention its formidable insight, I feel the only way to really challenge one's students is to implement higher-order thinking skills into both instruction and assessment. Being a history teacher, I can certainly appreciate the importance of simple recall of facts (eg people, places and dates), but history and the social studies necessitate high levels of analysis as they refer to the current status of the world. Without incorporating open-ended questions subject to interpretation, my students will never fully grasp the importance of the past, which is usually the most difficult aspect of foster appreciation for history classes.
This ties into the yearly / semester plan for my students. As the semester progresses, I intend to slowly require deeper understanding of the content by posing more open-ended or opinionated questions on assessments, in whatever form they may appear. This means that at the beginning of the semester, I will focus on more rote memory skills while at the same time gradually building a big picture for important concepts (eg social development and structure, imperialism and nation building, civic participation, etc.). Toward the middle and end of the semester, once these concepts have been exceptionally presented and discussed, my evaluations will tend to lean towards deep understanding, rather than simple. Based on the documentation, I can determine what content has been properly retained as well as that content comprehension which seems to be lacking.
In summary, assessment, documentation and evaluation, when used in concert, create something greater than the sum of their parts. The use of only one or two rarely concludes with the maximizing of student learning. Furthermore, multiple assessments, integrating higher-order thinking skills, is by far the best way to educate and inspire students to reach their full potential, creating a much needed generation of intellectually capable citizens.