When I started teaching, I struggled most with assessment. I found lesson-planning, curriculum-planning and classroom management challenging of course, but these were bearable challenges. Assessment, on the other hand, was a mystery to me. How do I genuinely assess student learning? How can I design meaningful, relevant and authentic assessment tasks that actually assess what they claim to? How can I be fair and consistent with my assessment of student work? How can I separate my personal feelings about the student from my assessment of their work? How can I justify my results and grades to students and give them feedback that moves their learning forward? These were all questions I asked myself frequently, and constantly struggled with finding answers to.
During the early years of my teaching experience, I was always the teacher preparing students for assessments designed by someone else, whether it is an external organisation or another teacher. Therefore, I had no control over the design of the tasks used to assess student learning. However, when I started teaching Drama, things changed. I was the only teacher of the subject and I had the full responsibility of creating and developing a curriculum, designing and building an assessment framework, and gathering a pool of resources. It was challenging, but I learned a lot from it. My early experiences with designing assessment tasks in drama were not always successful. I did not always feel that my assessments were clear enough to the students. I also did not feel that my assessments were valid, i.e. they actually assessed what they claimed to be assessing.
As part of my masters, I studied a subject called ‘Second Language Assessment’. This subject played a huge role in my understanding of assessment, even though it was not directly related to my teaching of drama. I came to understand many principles of assessment such as validity, reliability, washback, authenticity and practicality. I also came to realise that my teacher training on its own may have prepared me sufficiently for my role as an educator, but not as much for my role as an assessor.
Cracking the assessment code was no easy task, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. But, I believe I can now say I have finally figured it out, and I want to share what I learned:
- Assessment needs to be aligned with the learning objectives: sounds like common-sense, but in actual fact, it isn’t. If the lesson objective is to be able to ‘apply the elements of body language’, while the assessment is a quiz that asks students to list the elements of body language, then your assessment is not aligned with the learning objective.
- Designing assessment tasks needs to be the starting point of planning a unit of work: when I started teaching drama, I used to gather the content and plan my units of work first, then I would find or design assessment tasks to fit around that content. I later learned to start by asking myself: what do I want the students to be able to do? What knowledge and skills do I need to assess? The assessment task/s need to be created first, then the content needs to be tailored around them.
- A good assessment task needs to have good assessment criteria: if the assessment criteria are poorly designed for whatever reasons, the assessment task will always be lacking. Be clear and concise about what you want to assess.
- Always explain the assessment criteria to the students: this can often be draining, and can often lend itself to chalk-&-talk, but it is necessary. Students need to be given a chance to succeed and the best way they can do that is to understand what you will be thinking or looking for when you are marking their work. Your expectations of the students need to be communicated clearly to them.
- Allow the students to perform exactly what you want to assess: one of the assessment strands in the MYP Arts subjects is the student’s ability to receive feedback constructively (this is one of the strands under Criterion C – Reflection and Evaluation). I always struggled to gage this strand, and I relied solely on my observations. I later realised that it may be best to allow students to recall the feedback I gave them and then write a response to that feedback. In doing so, I am actually asking them to perform the act of receiving feedback and deciding what to do with it. If you want to assess whether or not the students can write a story, get them to write a story. Using a quiz on presentation skills will not give you an accurate assessment of the students’ presentation skills, but asking them to deliver an oral presentation will.
- The best assessment practices are those that empower students: spend the time to train your students to self-assess and self-evaluate their work. Students need to learn to take responsibility for their own learning, and training them to self-assess will work towards that goal. Students can also be trained to assess each other’s work. Peer assessment is another way of empowering the students and asking them to step into roles traditionally reserved for the teacher.
- Use a variety of assessment tools: I am a big fan of ‘alternatives in assessment’, i.e. a test can not assess everything. Additionally, I believe tests do not really assess a student’s learning, but rather their ability to cope with stressful situations (test-conditions do often create test-anxiety). A strong assessment framework needs to make use of a wide range of assessment tools such as tests, performance assessments, portfolios, conferencing with students, checklists, essays and self-assessments.
- Assessments should be part of the learning process, and not isolated events: I am a strong believer in ‘assessments for learning’ as opposed to ‘assessments of learning’. Formative assessment should be given at least as much weight as summative assessment, if not more. Not all assessments need to be formal and summative.
- Give timely, clear and positive feedback: always endeavour to give back graded work to the students in a timely manner, and make sure to leave a comment on the work highlighting some positive aspects of their work as well as suggestions for improvement.
- Find more efficient and less time-consuming ways to gather assessment data: not all work needs to be collected and marked. Make use of peer feedback, train students to read a rubric and grade each other’s work. Sometimes, just leaving your initials or signature on the students’ work is sufficient. Do not feel pressured to collect all work and mark it. I read the students’ journal reflections in class and leave my initials on them. Make use of ICT to gather data such as recording video of the students while they are working in groups or rehearsing for their performance. Allow students to reflect orally on their work while you record these videos. This can all serve as assessment data.
I do hope that these personal reflections on assessment can be beneficial for other new teachers out there. I would also appreciate any feedback or advice or comments. I have also attached below a list of very useful resources that helped me formulate my approach to assessment and my beliefs about it.
Brown, H.D. & Abeywickrama, P. (2010). Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices. (2nd ed., pp.25-223). New York: Pearson Education.
Brown, J.D., Hudson, T. (1998). The Alternatives in Language Assessment. TESOL Quarterly. 32, (4), 653-675.
Brown, S. (2004). Assessment For Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. 1, 81-89.
Stiggins, R.J. (2002). Assessment Crisis: The Absence of Assessment FOR Learning. Retrieved from <http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0206sti.htm>
Stiggins, R.J. (2005). From Formative Assessment to Assessment FOR Learning: A Path to Success in Standards-Based Schools. Phi Delta Kappan. 87, (4), 324-328.