Assessment, especially exams, is a major feature in most education systems around the world. From the standpoint of democratizing the educational experience, both the “what” and the “how” of assessment can be problematic. In terms of “what” is being assessed, testing too often targets rote memorization or low-level application skills, in part, because these things are the easiest to assess. But the aspects of learning that are formally assessed and reported on are the things that are perceived to be important. Testing only rote learning and low-level application therefore channels the energy of teachers and students away from higher level critical thinking skills, and more sophisticated applications of learning. To support democratization, teachers should consider whether they are assessing and reporting things which are fundamentally important to the development of democratic citizens, and if not, how we might better include those things in our assessment and reporting. Many of the relevant skills and dispositions cannot be assessed through simple tests, but could certainly be measured with a well-designed rubric, structured observations, performance assessments, open-ended questions, or a wide range of student projects. By assessing and reporting on the kinds of things that matter in democratic citizenship, we are sending a message to students that they are important.
"How" we do assessment is also important. It sends a clear message to students about their position in the classroom and society, and it lays a foundation for key expectations and assumptions about authority. Since our goals in education include the development of active engagement, critical thinking, and autonomy in our students, consideration should be given to how students can be actively involved in the assessment process themselves. Assessment, evaluation, and critical thinking are all closely related, and classroom assessment is a prime space for students to develop standards of judgment. In addition to involving students, it is also important for teachers to use clear and transparent criteria in assessment. This will not only help students to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and to improve systematically, but it will also contribute to a sense of justice--in that their grades are not perceived as arbitrary judgments. Through this process, students develop expectations of transparency and accountability from authority figures, which is important in their relationship with the government and other social leaders.
Getting There From Here
Get away from: Tests which focus on rote memorization
Work towards: Including critical thinking and synthesis questions on content-based tests
Get away from: Doing assessment only at the end of a topic our course (summative assessment/ assessment of learning)
Work towards: Conducting low-pressure formative assessment regularly to provide feedback on student learning (formative assessment/ assessment for learning)
Get away from: Using tests as the only form of assessment
Work towards: Using other forms of assessment such as projects, assignments, group tasks, stories, essays, and rubrics
Get away from: Grading holistically based on criteria which students may not be aware of
Work towards: Using clear and transparent assessment criteria so that students can understand and learn from their strengths and weaknesses
Get away from: Creating grading criteria entirely on your own
Work towards: Involving students in formulating assessment criteria in order to help them develop standards of judgment and evaluative capacity
Get away from: Assessment done only/ entirely by the teacher
Work towards: Involving students in assessment through self-, peer-, and joint assessment, as this can contribute to their critical thinking and sense of ownership
Get away from: Reporting only on “academic” achievements such as test scores
Work towards: Including emphasis on students’ character development, not just academic scores
Get away from: Reporting only numbers (grades)
Work towards: Narrative reporting which describes other aspects of students’ development which can’t be captured in simple numbers
For your next assignment, give students the grading criteria in advance. If the criteria are good criteria, they will help students to develop better quality assignments.
Next time student work is being graded, give them a grading sheet and have them self-assess using the same grading criteria you’ll use. Or ask them to work with a partner to do peer-assessment and provide feedback on each other’s work.
Pick something from one of your lessons, maybe a student assignment, maybe a piece of reading from their textbook, maybe even your own presentation, and ask students how that thing might be evaluated? What might an evaluation of that be based on? Let them discuss and determine a small number of clear “criteria” on which to base judgments.
At the end of a lesson, give students little strips of paper and have them draft one possible test question based on the content of the lesson. This will get them thinking about what they learned and how it might be assessed.
Matthew Hiebert 2013-08-30