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Tips for Developing Classroom Assessments

As an educator, you know that standardized tests are a fact of life. They can produce useful information, but the results often are too late, too shallow or not what you needed to find out.

So, the best tool you have is the classroom-based assessment. Here are some suggestions to help you develop classroom tests that provide valid, reliable and usable information about how students are doing. 

Start with the end in mind

Consider the outcome you want (How will students demonstrate achievement?) and "map backward" from the standards and the evidence needed to meet the goal (the assessment) to instruction. The assessment should represent what students need to know. As a result, it guides what you teach.

Teach to the assessed content, not test questions

Teaching to the content will come pretty naturally when classroom-based assessments reflect your state's content standards and curriculum. That is, the tests will be aligned with the curriculum and reflect what's happening in your classroom. Teaching to the content keeps students moving toward standards or goals. In this system, content standards, curriculum and instruction are the centerpiece.

Avoid teaching to the test items

This occurs when students are taught to perform well on particular test questions. This kind of teaching tells us little to nothing about how well students are actually progressing toward mastery of the standards-a true understanding of the content. Under the teaching-to-the-test scenario, test items are the centerpiece. As a result, the goal of measuring progress toward the content standards and curriculum is lost.

Use a combination of summative and formative assessments

Summative assessments are given at the end of instruction. They answer the question: Did the students get it? Examples of summative assessments include end-of-unit tests, final projects and final research reports. Formative assessments occur during instruction. These tests answer the question: Are students on the right track? Examples of formative assessments include feedback, observations, rough drafts and spot-check quizzes.

Try It!Second Chance
Chelmsford, Mass. High school teacher Robert Bradman gives struggling students a second chance by offering them a contract for improvement. The students agree to show him their daily homework efforts (or another area that needs attention), and in exchange Bradman doubles the weight of all the remaining grades for the term. "This puts more emphasis on future opportunities and can substantially raise their grades," he notes.

Incorporate formative assessment techniques

The best formative assessments are part of the instructional process in which teachers stop to make spot checks, engage students or see if they're "getting it." Formative techniques include:

  • Observing. Use anecdotal records (for instance, focus on three to five students per day and make notes about each student's learning) and checklists (say, a set list of criteria, skills, behaviors, etc., that you fill out).
  • Asking well-designed questions. "Closed questions" focus on recall of facts or simple comprehension. There is a right answer. (Who is the main character in the story?) "Open questions" focus on finding out what students know, understand or are able to do. (Would you rather live when the story takes place or now? Why?) Use Bloom's Taxonomy to develop questions that help develop students' thinking skills.
  • Providing feedback. Feedback is communicating how students did in light of a goal-what was and was not accomplished. Evaluative feedback provides a judgment (in other words, a grade) summarizing the quality of the learning. Descriptive feedback provides specific written comments that help the student understand what needs to improve.

Try It!What's the Date?
Instead of writing the date on the chalkboard, high school math teacher Robert Bradman of Chelmsford, Mass., turns it into a math calculation for his students. For example, Nov. √32 + 42 would be Nov. 5, and Dec. 8 ÷ ½ would be Dec. 16. He also encourages students to design their own math/date calculations to post in class.


Improve your communication with students

They respond better to give-and-take than to a letter grade. Researcher Ruth Butler, an education professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found that assigning grades to student work had no positive effect. It didn't improve students' performance. However, when teachers provided only descriptive feedback and no grade, student performance improved by 30 percent. When Butler looked at both assigning a grade and providing descriptive feedback, she found no positive effect-assigning grades negated the positive effects of the feedback.

Adding more standardized tests to the school calendar won't raise academic achievement. What will help students is timely, meaningful feedback on their schoolwork. Such assessments let you probe into what they know, what they still need to learn and whether they're on the right track. And that, ultimately, is how to help your students learn and grow.

Try It!Corrections Memo
Sometimes students will "lose" their graded math tests after getting them back, notes Chelmsford, Mass., high school teacher Robert Bradman. Try passing out a "Corrections and Mistakes" memo sheet on colored paper when the test is returned to students. Ask them to record correct answers and procedures and to write out what their mistakes were. Collect the tests and memo sheet and keep a file for each student's tests. It's useful to have these on hand for future reference.