The Power of Assessment: Refocusing the Conversation

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For the most part, instructional assessment should turn the focus back on the instructor.

For the most part, instructional assessment should turn the focus back on the instructor.

This blog post was first published as Assessing Distance Learning and completed as part of the expectations for a Distance Learning Class during my doctoral program at Illinois State University with Professor Cheri Toledo:


Many educators have the notion that assessment is something they do after instruction is complete. Assessment, then, they see as a means of evaluating a student’s learning. I call this perception of assessment a “notion” because definitionally, that is just what it is…an idea, “a mental apprehension.” According to Merriam Webster, the meaning of the word “assessment” can have connotations of evaluation, but also included in the definition is the word, “installments.”

In an educational sense, a sense for which MW does not provide a definition of our term, Grant Wiggins applies the concept of installments as he explores the differences between assessment and evaluation. In his discussion, he attributes the qualities of assessment with those of feedback whereas the qualities of evaluation are “value judgments made about the facts and their impact.”

So what. One of the concerns many have regarding distance learning is the ability of the educator to assess and evaluate the progress of the learner. From the standpoint of assessment, if one (like me) subscribes to Wiggins’s theories, assessment is key to distance learning. Assessment is ongoing and informative; assessment flows in two directions, from student to teacher and teacher to student–it is Socratic in that teachers and learners are involved in a process of questioning and responding and adjusting and reflecting and questioning. Learning doesn’t end; the time in which one has to demonstrate their learning comes to a close. And all of this activity is done promptly, unlike the classic educational systems that place time limits on learners without like constraints on evaluators. Assessment is the flipside of feedback. To see assessment not as evaluation but as a Socratic practice that benefits all involved in learning is to put a positive spin on one of the most needed aspects in education today…a motivation to learn and prove that learning.

Retrospective entered July 16, 2013

Since writing this blog in 2007, the purposes and outcomes of assessment have grown in interest and discussion among both educators and the public. While NCLB was purportedly enacted as a philosophical agent on behalf of those children who were not being provided the levels of instruction to which they had every right, the consequences of the resulting assessment fell under heavy and deserved criticism. Overtime, states and local districts have come to realize and readily admit that NCLB did have the positive effect of bringing to light the sad state of achievement among demographic subgroups. On the other hand, the negative effect of generalized compliance assessment appeared to diminish the needs of the individual for the sake of a statistic. Effective assessment should provide an opportunity for learning on behalf of the learner and the teacher. Why did learning occur? What learning did not occur? What type of teaching can be related to what types of learning?

An even more far reaching change in assessment since the initial posting of this blog can be attributed to the evolution of assessment from an item based theory means of assessment writing to an evidence centered design methodology. Backwards design has always been about identifying the desired outcome of instruction and writing an assessment that matches the expected learning (evidence centered). However, in the past (and really, still going on!), teachers have been using an item based assessment methodology. After teaching lessons based on the order of the content in a textbook, the teacher either designed a test measuring content taught or looked through the assessment provided by the textbook publisher and crossed out the questions that were not covered (note I said covered…not learned and maybe not even taught) in the class. The teacher put forth great effort to be sure there were a mix of questions: hard, easy, and “just right” (read more in a recent post: Evidence Centered Design & the Common Core) The teacher did not (again, for the most part) consciously decide what standards or goals, what cognitive skills were the desired outcomes of the unit. The result was the testing of knowledge, memory, recall frequently through multiple-choice questions and sometimes through short answer and/or essay.

Although many educators have been using backwards design and standards based instruction for many years, the fact is most have not and still do no. But the Common Core may affect change as today in 2013 we move toward Next Generation Assessments. Most educators now realize that responsible citizens need a combination of knowledge and skills. The public has come to understand that students need to do more than merely learn the facts of the matter. Responsible citizens need to be able to analyze the rapidly changing nature of facts and through analysis evaluate situations and make judgments based on high level cognitive thinking. As an educational goal, this kind of thinking broadens schools’ opportunities for instruction, practice, and assessment. As a goal, this allows education to turn the focus of assessment away from the student and onto the process. If students are not achieving, what does that say about the practices of teaching? If patients were not getting well, what would that say about the practices of medicine.


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