8 Questions to Tackle in Designing Student Assessments

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

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One of the most controversial educational topics in the past two decades… a four-letter word… is "TEST!" If you ask an educator, they may have more four-letter words to accompany it! Many of us do not shirk our responsibilities to assess our students….we know it needs to be done. What many of us are upset about is the amount of testing we do as compared to instruction. There has been an increase of accountability at every level, which has required more and more testing. We have state tests, district tests, unit tests, and other tests. In fact, students may be tested over 100 hours of their roughly 1,080 hours of school each year. A recent article, titled "Confirmed: Standardized testing has taken over our schools. But who's to blame?" listed a study that tallied the average yearly amount of time for standardized testing for a student in the United States is 25 hours (that does not include district testing, school assessments, teacher created testing, etc.). Here is a brief history of standardized assessments as I see it!

Many of us who grew up in the 1980s were required to take standardized tests when we were kids. Many of us took the either the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or ITBS each year. These were a series of multiple-choice questions in several different subject areas. A majority of these questions were low-level "knowledge" based questions according to Bloom's Taxonomy. Then, starting in the early 2000s, criterion-referenced tests were developed during the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Era. This raised the bar for what standardized testing looked like. I believe NCLB created a billionaire testing industry…like we had never seen before. The questions were more difficult, yet still mostly multiple-choice with one or two short answer questions (or structured responses). All questions were built around criterion designed by testing companies whom used each states standards. What we learned more about a decade into NCLB was that what was proficient in some states did not equate to other states. These tests pitted state proficiency processes against each other. For example, what was proficient in Arkansas was not proficient in Massachusetts. Accountability and sanctions increased for schools that were found insufficient. In fact, one such sanction for a school that was failing for seven straight years was to fire its teachers and administrators. A cry for nationalized standards to compare data, compare schools, and be held accountable similarly across the nation arose. Common core standards were devised by the National Governor's Association. Though they did not involve all the major education organizations, these standards gave educators a common playing field across the nation. Forty-two states currently use these standards. Though there is much controversy with the implementation of the Common Core, a majority of teachers interviewed accept and are even thankful for the detailed and rigorousness of these standards (What teachers really think of Common Core math: Lessons from a new Fordham study. June 19, 2016).

The new Smarter assessment is computer-based with several different types of question formats… including a lot of writing on most questions. Students have to explain their thinking, be analytical, and detailed in their structured responses. The tests are built from the Common Core standards. Though results in many states are not received for several months after the testing date, the information can be used to develop curriculum, instruction, and further assessments.

Master teachers understand this dilemma and make sure they are doing what is best for students, as well as meeting their school district's requirements. They know that formative assessments drive the day-to-day, hour-by-hour instruction in their classrooms. They understand that multiple data points including both quantitative and qualitative data, tell the best picture of a student. One test on one day only gives you a small snapshot of each learner. Even when the emphasis is on growth, one test only gives a small portion of each student's story. We must dig deeper and learn more about our students to create a Monet art masterpiece, a distinguishing dashboard of discourse, and a vital informational vitae.

Here are eight questions to tackle in order to design effective student assessments:

1 - What Criteria Do You Chose When Creating an Assessment?

Strong assessments are in the eye of the beholder. What one educator believes, as compared to an administrator, or even a student can all be different. The more we can argue why an assessment is strong and can back it up with evidence and rationale, the stronger the assessment. This is the most difficult task an educator will be challenged with…creating an assessment that gives the teacher, student, parent, and administrator information about the students' progress towards proficiency of a learning objective. Textbook companies, states, school districts, and educators are all tasked with designing assessments that give the best possible data on student progress; data that can drive instructional decisions. Much of these assessments are based on research, but we have to remember that they are also only a snapshot of a student at one point in time. What master teachers look for and use most regularly is formative data over time; it can illustrate trends, patterns, and effectiveness. Master teachers put more relevance in their instructional decisions by focusing on growth over time. They understand that they can affect a student's growth by the decisions they make with curriculum, instruction, assessment, and engagement.

A master teacher starts with the end in mind; what they assess drives the subsequent lessons that lead up to that assessment. They chose learning objectives based on educational standards. Designing effective assessments contain these two main components, knowledge of content and reasoning skills. A master teacher not only designs such assessments, but they include the students in its creation. Though many assessments are created by textbook companies and school districts, educators can also create assessments that take into account the individual students in their classrooms. These assessments can be required by school districts to report student progress. Please understand that this data can be powerful, but it cannot be the only way we assess students. Most of those assessments are paper and pencil, multiple-choice and short answer tests. Some of the newer assessments taken online can adapt to how the student answers the question. After the student answers a question, the proceeding question may be more difficult if the student answers correctly and vice versa if the answer is incorrect. These adaptive tests over time will narrow in on a proficiency level of the student. Yet, overall, they are not much different from a paper-pencil test. Master teachers get outside of this box to create assessments that are tailored specially to an individual students learning style.

RELATED - Master's in Curriculum and Instruction

Here is an example of a learning objective based on a 5th grade standard for English Language Arts, as well as a multiple choice test question the student may see on a textbook company's assessment.

Common Core Standard: English Language Arts: Reading: Literacy: Standard 5 Component 6

Describe how a narrator's or speaker's point of view influences how events are described.
Here is an example of the same learning objective assessed that includes choice and can be tailored to an individual student.

A possible test question a student may see for this question is the following…

TASK: Read each group of sentences in the paragraph above. Decide if it is written in first person or third person point of view.

Here is alternative way to assess the same standard that can be tailored to each student's learning style, and give valuable information into the student's progress. By letting a student choose the learning the style, the final product, and process, the educator can get valuable information towards that student's progress towards proficiency of the standard. By setting up an easy chart based on Howard Garner's Learning Styles, a student can be empowered to complete an assessment with more ownership at their differentiated level.

TASK: Please circle how you would like to be assessed on ELA 5.6. (*This is just an example and would need to be tailored towards the standard more effectively; this meets the purpose as a possible example)

(from an article by Linda Campbell in Educational Leadership, 9/97)

Linguistic Logical Bodily Visual
Use storytelling to explain Translate it into a mathematical formula Create a movement or sequence of movements to explain Chart, map, cluster, or graph
Conduct a debate on Design and conduct an experiment on Make task or puzzle cards for Create a slide show, videotape, or photo album of
Write a poem, myth, legend, short play, or news article about Make up syllogisms to demonstrate Build or construct a Create a piece of art that demonstrates
Create a talk show radio program about Make up analogies to explain Plan and attend a field trip that will Invent a board or card game to demonstrate
Conduct an interview of/on Describe the patterns or symmetry in Bring hands-on materials to demonstrate Illustrate, draw, paint, sketch, or sculpt
Musical Interpersonal Intrapersonal Naturalist
Give a presentation with appropriate musical accompaniment on Conduct a meeting to address Describe qualities you possess that will help you successfully complete Create observation notebooks of
Sing a rap or song that explains Intentionally use social skills to learn about Set and pursue a goal to Describe changes in the local or global environment
Indicate the rhythmical patterns in Participate in a service project to Describe one of your personal values about Care for pets, wildlife, gardens, or parks
Explain how the music of a song is similar to Teach someone about Write a journal entry on Use binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, or magnifiers to
Make an instrument and use it to demonstrate Practice giving and receiving feedback on Assess your own work in Draw or photograph natural objects

Formative assessments, or assessments for learning, can be designed that lead to the above assessment, and will give the teacher information that he or she can use to drive instructional decisions. A teacher can modify, or allow a student to modify and self-assess. Here is a great list of formative assessments from an Edutopia resource titled, 53 Ways to Check Understanding.

2 - Do Your Assessments Provide for Student Choice?

A freshman history course at the University of Montana in 1994 required me to take a mid-term and a final…both of which contained one question each. We were to bring as many Blue Books as we could fill in the timed 120 minutes slotted for each assessment. We were basically asked to write as much as we remembered about the history covered in the course. I did not fair well! I wished I had more choice.

In the above examples of assessments, summative and formative, there are fabulous opportunities to provide students with choice. Assessment should drive instruction and master teachers know they can tailor learning experiences to individual students or groups of students with the harvested data.

Master teachers develop assessments with standards and student involvement. Here are four great tips from another Edutopia article titled, "Using Quick Check-Ins to Measure Student Understanding:

Tips for building student choice into your formative assessments," by Mike Anderson (March 29, 2017).

  1. Create good choices - Choices should align with learning goals and what you want to learn from the assessment. They should resonate with students-matching their varied interests, needs, and abilities. They should also make sense logistically-involving light prep on your part and about the same amount of time for students to complete.
  2. Help students choose well - Give students some guidance about which choice might be best without overly directing them. Aaron might say, "Think about which of these similes will best help you highlight your understanding of the human body. For example, if you're into sports or music, you might choose one that matches those interests." Chris might say, "If one of these problems seems to match up with how you're doing on division, you might pick that one. If you think making one up will best help show your level of understanding, that might be a good choice for you."
  3. Practice, practice, practice - The first few times you offer choices like this, students may struggle. They might not know where to start, or they might pick options that aren't great fits. That's OK! The more often you try simple choices like this with students, the better they will get at the skills of self-assessment and effective decision-making.
  4. Don't force it - If there really is one assessment that is the best way to check in on students' learning, don't give a choice. When choices are forced and aren't appropriate, they feel inauthentic and aren't effective.

3 - Are the Assessments You Create Authentic and Applicable to Real-World Applications?

When a student asks, "When will I ever have to use this?" A teacher should be ready to give rationale and how it applies to real-world situations. Without rationale for learning the information, students cannot connect it to something for further retention. Master teachers create assessments that makes the content relatable and relevant to their lives. Sadly, many assessments that teachers are required to give do not meet this criteria, making it difficult for teachers to create buy-in, as well as applicable to their lives.

Some tips and tricks that master teachers use when the information is difficult is to provide rationale, choice, matching a student's learning style (Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences), and do some more research. By providing choice, students take ownership of their learning as they are the one that gets to choose how they are assessed. Students can be assessed in multiple learning styles (See above); they chose to be assessed in one of their strengths or chose to challenge themselves in a deficit area. Lastly, master teachers do the research to find rationale. When something does not seem easy to connect, they spend time researching to connect the learning objectives and assessment to a student's personal life.

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4 - Do Your Assessments Adapt to Individual Students in Your Classroom as Needs Arise?

Many schools use district-created tests that give teachers summative data about their students and their instructional effectiveness. Many students have required testing accommodations through either an Individual Education Plan or a 504 Plan. In addition, master teachers find ways to individualize assessments through customized learning plans or tiered learning supports (Response to Intervention, RtI). Tiered learning supports can be as simple as providing testing accommodations from a paper-pencil assessment to a verbal assessment. The goal of individualizing assessments is to score the student against proficiency levels for any given learning objective, or score them for growth versus their prior assessment data.

Deciding on what adaptions to make to an assessment is both an art and a science. The teacher must study and pin point what the student is struggling with, and then know what types of accommodations to implement. As previously mentioned, adapting to students can be done through choice and learning style. Here is a list of other possible testing accommodations that can support the teacher in individualizing an assessment.

5 - Are Students Involved in Designing Assessments and Rubrics for Their Own Work?

Control of creating assessments is large factor between a proficient and exemplary levels of a teacher according to Charlotte Danielson's evaluation model. An exemplary teacher gives up control by teaching his or her students how to create a strong assessment, summative or formative. These teachers are able to specify the learning objectives required to meet standards when students are developing the assessments. The teacher and student then works together to develop an assessment that meets desired requirements and expectations.

By sharing and giving up the ownership of assessments, teachers can empower students learning. A bonus for this learning strategy is that students also know exactly what to do and how to get the score they want when they develop the assessment or rubric. The idea of agency, where students take on their own learning, is strengthened with such strategies.

Here is an example of assessment that was create by students and teacher in a fifth grade science and social studies project:

6 - Do You Have Students Complete Self-Assessments on a Rubric (Rate Their Understanding of a Concept, Participation, Etc.)?

Formative assessments, rubrics and checklists, can be used for students to self-reflect about their learning. When students self-assess, they score themselves against specific expectations. Using a simple rating system with points from 0-5 give a numerical value for the rubric. For example, a rubric for a 45-minute learning period might include the following criteria:

  • 5 Points = 100 % on task, all required work completed, supported other student's learning
  • 4 Points = 100% on task, all required work completed, 0 teacher reminders
  • 3 Points = 80% on task, all required work completed, and/or teacher supported behavior once
  • 2 Points = 80% on task, almost all work completed, and/or teacher supported behavior 1-2X
  • 1 Point = <80% on task, most of work incomplete, and/or teacher supported behavior 3+X
  • 0 Points = no evidence of participation, no work completed, a behavior disruption

Another example is a 3-point rubric that is criterion-based on content from a fifth grade social studies lesson:

  • 3 Points = able to identify 3 causes for the Revolutionary War and can communicate them clearly with detail
  • 2 Points = able to identify at least 1 cause and can communicate it clearly with detail
  • 1 Point = able to identify 1-3 causes, but can communicate them clearly
  • 0 Points = unable to identify at least 1 cause, nor communicate it

These types of assessments are powerful as students are asked to reflect on the work they accomplished in a given time period. Setting these expectations prior to instruction is also a strong component of classroom management. The better a teacher sets these expectations, the better the students will do. Then, when students score low on the devised rating scale, one-on-one conferences and goal setting can occur. This type of feedback and data tracking is useful for students, teachers, and even parent communication when discussing progress or looking for patterns.

7 - Do Your Formative Assessments Drive Small Group Instruction Or "Workshop Time?"

Small group instruction is a researched-based strategy that John Hattie states in his book, Visible Learning has a d. = 0.44 effect size. When master teachers use it effectively, it is a highly valuable instructional strategy. The ability to group students is also an art and a science. A teacher must use data to decide what needs to be addressed with students. Teachers can teach more efficiently and effectively when they find students with some of the same learning difficulties. Teachers can group by skill, concept, ability, modality, or even learning style to name a few.

The art of grouping students by master teachers is deciding what student needs should be differentiated with instruction. Using data, teachers change content, alter instructional strategies, or provide alternative assessment opportunities. They have set goals for the group and for each individual within that group. The teacher and students know what they are working on during the small group or workshop time and the both can communicate their progress towards the specified goals.

Teachers and students both know the expectations of the small group time. Master teachers understand that time is limited and what is completed in group time is vital. Setting expectations through the use of a rubric during will give the teacher valuable data to use to set further goals. The teacher can set a learning target, then develop a 1-4 scoring rubric like the ones listed below. This data can be used to drive instruction.

Here are two examples of small group learning rubrics from a blog by Adam Socket titled, "Formative Assessment for Writing."

8 - Are Your Designed Summative Assessments Based on Learning Outcomes That Assess Reasoning Skills, as Well as Factual Knowledge?

State and district assessments should be assessing both reasoning skills and factual knowledge. When a teacher designs the assessment, Bloom's Taxonomy can play a role in determining what types of questions will be on the assessment. Knowledge-based multiple choice or true/false questions are usually the quickest to grade, but do not give you as much information as an open-ended question that requires the student to evaluate and analyze.

Assessing reasoning skills from a student may be problematic. If they can explain why they are making the decisions they are, it automatically raises the level of difficulty of the assessment. Scoring student thinking becomes gray. As educators, we must delineate the criteria to score the student against as we grade their thinking. This criteria is based on how a student would respond in order to show proficiency in a given area.

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In the assessment rubric on Christopher Columbus below, the assessment asks for students to create a product that contains ten events that tell his journey to the New World. Students must evaluate and reason why they chose those ten events, as well as deciding what events to not put in the final product. With this open-ended nature of the assignment, getting students to discuss their rationale will give you the strongest feedback on whether they met the learning objective. In the assessment below, students must have a grasp on the factual knowledge of Christopher Columbus; both assessment types as listed by Charlotte Danielson are covered.