The Purpose of Assessments

   For a majority of teachers in the classroom today, the sequence of instruction is the same: teach, practice, test. We test to see if the students learned what we thought we taught. It is an assessment of what they know, and how well we presented the information and if we gave them ample opportunities to practice. If students don’t pass the test, we might offer an extra worksheet, but we move on because our principal, State, and the next year’s teachers are expecting students to leave our classrooms ‘knowing’ certain information. But do they really ‘know’ it if they cannot pass a test on it? And if we spend extra time on a concept, then we don’t ‘get through’ the entire curriculum, and how will that effect the ever-important test scores?

   For some teachers, perhaps this isn’t the quandary that it is for others. I don’t think it matters on the number of students in a class, but how much the teacher is vested in the growth of the students and whether or not relationships are formed. In my experience, I know well before I plan to give an assessment who in my class has the information, can apply it, and do well on a test, and who needs more practice. There are those students who don’t do well on tests, and those that follow the pattern of not completing assignments, and therefore not practicing the material, and their lack of understanding comes through on the test.

   Since the end of the semester was just a short two weeks ago, I was thinking of this as I was compiling problems for the final exams. In our district, the Board policy states that every teacher must give a final exam or cumulative project. In the past, I’ve given a paper-pencil test in the fall, and the spring semester ended with a project. I know which of my students will do well on the paper-pencil test, as it is those students who are consistent in completing homework, participate in class, and work constructively on paired and group projects. Very rarely am I surprised. Those that do poorly, are the students who fail to utilize study skills, or take advantage of all the resources available to them. I often wondered why we needed to require students to complete a final exam or project. Is there one in life? What about when a person leaves a job or a relationship ends? Is there a questionnaire, a test that one must pass? If school is to prepare students for life, I fail to see why a final exam is so important.

   And how much of the information crammed for in order to take a final, is actually remembered later on? My guess is that it’s not much. I’d like to offer an alternative. Instead of reading a novel and giving a test on what the students remember from it, have them write a reflective essay. What did they learn from the author and the characters? Was there anything that they could apply to their own life? Has the story changed their thinking or beliefs in any way? If so, how? For a math class, instead of continuing to complete naked-number problems, have the students chart their own progress, and write what they have learned, and what they still don’t understand. Why not have them teach a concept to the class or a small group of students? Instead of focusing so much on symbolic problems, embed the concepts into story problems. Students learn more when they realize there is a purpose for learning something, rather than to just get to the next level or memorize the steps in a problem. Science is perhaps the easiest, as all we have to do is look around us, and we can see how it applies to our lives. For Social Studies, I’ve always found that students struggle with the wars and time periods and famous people because their world knowledge is so small. So, give them that knowledge, but not strictly through books. Reenactments, guest speakers, movies, web quests, and projects asking students to draw their own conclusions, decide if there are any parallels to current times, and how it affects them.

   I shake my head at the 150 vocabulary words that students are asked to match for an Economics final, or the obscure triangles they are to solve for angles or side measurements, which came from one section in one chapter months earlier. Can they apply the knowledge? That is the question. Our State tests measure knowledge, not learning, nor how or even if, students can apply what teachers present. My belief is that if we offer students different ways to show what they know, how it applies to their life and their world, and the ones in the future, then we have done our jobs. Simply passing a final exam, whether it is matching words and definitions or 100 Algebra problems, the importance should be on what the student has learned, internalized, and can apply, not on what they can regurgitate. In the kits that I’ve developed and used with my own students, there are numerous ways that I’ve offered for students to practice concepts and skills and show what they know. You can view them at Leave a comment if there’s an alternative to paper-pencil assessments that you use.