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Assessment is NOT a Dirty Word

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement






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If you spend as much time talking to instructors as I do, you know that these words are part of the fabric of education. They’re inescapable, and frankly, they inspire strong reactions in teachers everywhere, particularly in secondary education across North America. In many cases, they result in NEGATIVE feelings: stress, anxiety, fear, anger even. Those feelings are often justified, but it’s time that we acknowledge the feelings and reclaim the words. Assessment belongs to teachers; it’s part of what we do. It always has been and always will be an important part of the learning process.

Some may ask why there might be negative emotions if assessment is such an important and natural part of education and teachers will cite examples of testing that is designed for the masses, of being driven to “teach to the test,” and of feeling like these tests are not appropriate for their students. Some teachers even speak of not trusting the test or having unreasonable targets set without any context. Perhaps most significantly, the truth is that in some cases, test results can be used punitively and districts, schools, teachers, and even students have suffered. Decisions about funding, professional learning, student interventions, and personnel have all been tied to test results that even the most neutral will acknowledge should not be the only measure of learning. When you put together all of those experiences, it isn’t surprising that the connotations around the words can become murky, at best.

To do this, let’s start by remembering: Assessment is NOT a dirty word.

In fact, we know that assessment can be a critical component of effective instruction that does meet the needs of students and accurately captures their learning. In my undergraduate days, long ago, we discussed the difference between assessment OF learning (exams, portfolios, book talks) and assessment FOR learning (exit tickets, discussions, cooperative learning activities). Assessment FOR learning can be a powerful tool that offers insight into exactly what needs to happen next; it can actually save teachers time and make their instruction more targeted and effective. For secondary teachers, in particular, it becomes important to make a clear distinction between high-stakes, summative testing for the masses, and carefully formulated assessments designed by teachers who know the students. While it’s true that these are both forms of assessment, their intent, design, and impact are very different.

When I was a curriculum supervisor and a principal, I used to tell my teachers that there were three critical questions to ask themselves each day:

  • Who “got it”?
  • Who didn’t?
  • What are you going to do about it tomorrow?

For me, those metrics drove everything, but to answer those questions, teachers needed to assess. Effective assessment practices give teachers information that is critical to moving students toward mastery of the learning objectives.

How to Reclaim Assessment Make it meaningful and authentic.

Stop and consider your objective. What do you really need to know and how can students best demonstrate their understanding? If you’re taking instructional time to assess, be sure that it is a good use of time, that it will provide you, your students, and other stakeholders (such as parents or even administrators) meaningful information about students’ mastery. Be thoughtful about the best ways for students to demonstrate their mastery, and make sure that your assessments are truly aligned to the instruction.

Make it formative.

Focus on the learning. Effective assessment drives learning, and one of the best ways to do this is to utilize a formative cycle - teach, assess, provide feedback, allow for practice, and re-assess. Constantly moving through this cycle allows for continuous growth and improvement. With all the challenges of remote and hybrid learning environments, more formative, low-stakes assessments, as opposed to one high-stakes, summative exam, offers students multiple chances to grow, and it may even help to address some of the inequities currently impacting students who may not have consistent reliable access to technology or who may have new family responsibilities that interfere with their school schedule. John Hattie’s seminal research has shown that a feedback-based formative learning cycle makes the most significant impact on student learning even under normal circumstances. That is where the magic happens.

Pro Tip: Turnitin’s Feedback Studio makes it easy to deliver formative feedback AND offers best-in-class similarity checking.

Be strategic.

In your own assessments, you can pick what to assess, when to assess it, and HOW to assess it so make the choices that work in your learning context. Maybe you need a quick check and just want to ask 3 targeted, short-answer questions; maybe you need a more global view but don’t have a lot of time so you just want a set of multiple-choice questions; maybe you really want a deep understanding of students’ thinking and skills so you want to design a full research project with a formal essay or multi-step performance task. All of these assessment tools can serve a purpose so carefully evaluate your goals and pick the right tool to fit the parameters. Knowing that All Assessments Are Not Created Equal (a blog post with a nice overview of assessment types), choose your evaluation tools according to the needs of the task. Consider online tools like Gradescope, designed to help you deliver your assessments, automatically group them by student performance, and score them quickly and easily.

A Word about the Importance of Preserving Integrity

If we really want to reclaim the power of assessment, we have to make sure that it actually does what we want it to do - provide insight into students’ progress and mastery. That won’t happen if we cannot be sure that the results are an accurate representation of the students to whom they’re connected. In our current climate, this can be incredibly challenging whether we’re focused on summative or formative assessment. Some teachers are still working entirely within a remote learning context while others are in a hybrid setting; still, others are back in a traditional face-to-face setting, but the raging pandemic offers the constant fear of having that paused entirely. The temptations and distractions that can lead to issues related to academic integrity are very real in this context.

Because the subject of academic integrity is nuanced, I would strongly recommend taking some time to look more closely at this issue. You can find a number of deep dives on the subject, whether you’re looking at the main challenges of remote assessment or simply how to assess during a pandemic. To find out more about Turnitin’s solutions for a formative approach to academic integrity in the newly launched instructional resource pack, Disrupting Plagiarism: Building a Culture of Academic Honesty, and Turnitin Draft Coach.

In the world of assessment, in particular, the value of integrity cannot be emphasized enough because, after all, the only way that the insights from assessment are truly meaningful is if they are authentic and truly paint a picture of students’ knowledge, understanding, and skill. Without integrity, that entire concept is undermined, and the insights become meaningless. No matter how you approach assessment as an educator, imbue your philosophy with a strong foundation of integrity and know that assessment, in all its many forms, is an essential part of the learning process.