Fulfilling the Promise of Assessments

As a middle school math teacher for more than 20 years, I am passionate about my work. One of my first leadership experiences was serving as a teacher researcher on a project focused on assessment through Michigan State University, which sparked my interest in assessment. As our panel developed different assessments to measure processes for learning, I became curious about the nuances of assessment development. It intrigued me how one word can change a student’s interpretation of a question and how assumptions about students’ knowledge can create bias. Through the years, I have had more opportunities to develop assessments and continue to grow my understanding of how to develop a high-quality assessment that is an accurate measure of student learning.

Developing meaningful, quality, aligned assessments that provide teachers with valuable information about what students do and do not understand is hard work. It also takes a lot of time to develop them, and a lot of time for students to take them, so we need to ensure that the time invested is worth it. There are a few ways to do that.

One strategy I’ve found effective is to encourage students to work together on assessment tasks. In my math class, I choose tasks that are cognitively demanding and require students to use their problem-solving skills. I only give students one opportunity to ask me for help so they can determine what questions are a priority. This also reinforces their reliance on each other to discuss and problem solve. I also give the students a chance to revise their work after I’ve graded the task, allowing them to identify where they have made a mistake, process their thinking and correct their errors. This process helps students reflect on their thinking and understand the skills and content in a deeper way that allows for broader application of the skills and procedures they learn in my classroom.

Many teachers give their students a review before an upcoming test. Another strategy I’ve found effective is to do a “Partner Test” in place of a review. Students practice their problem solving and collaboration skills while getting ready for the test at the same time.

Last but not least, when you are looking at the results of your students’ performance, always analyze them, and do a quick error analysis. Teachers are not statisticians, so this doesn’t need to be complicated. I usually spend some time to see which questions received the most incorrect responses, and then involve my students and ask them to analyze each other’s work. We’ll walk through the most frequently missed questions as a class and discuss why they answered incorrectly, and how they could have arrived at the correct answer.

In the classroom, meaningful assessment is just as important as instruction. When done well, it provides teachers with feedback on where remediation is needed, the concepts students need more practice on and provides students with a way to measure their progress and understand their own strengths and weaknesses. So, as educators, we need to make sure the assessments we are developing are effective tools for teachers and students.

Jane Porath is an 8th grade mathematics teacher at Traverse City East Middle School. Throughout her career she has been active in the mathematics educational community in various ways. Most recently, she was selected to serve on the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council.