Are We Marking Assignments or Assessing Learning?

Good ole spreadsheets.
CC Image from Joseph Thibault https://flic.kr/p/6Fg2z2

Originally posted at The Wejr Board blog.

There has been much focus on shifting our assessment practices in education and, particularly in BC, moving toward more Assessment For Learning (or formative assessment) in schools.  This is such an important conversation and needed change but at some point along the way, Assessment OF Learning (or summative assessment) has been given a bad rap.  To have sound assessment practices in a classroom and school, we need a solid balance of ongoing formative assessment (click here for more info) as well as an effective way to verify that learning has occurred (summative).  Formative assessment should be where we spend most of our time, but summative assessments are still very important.

As we engage in dialogue in our school around assessment, I recently posed a question at our staff meeting that said:

Are we marking assignments or assessing learning outcomes?

Although I failed to provide enough time to discuss this at our staff meeting, the conversation spilled over into the hallways and the staff meeting the next morning as teachers engaged in some (at times frustrating) dialogue around the topic of summative assessment.

For the vast majority of the teaching portion of my career (high school math/science/PE as well as intermediate), I developed assignments and tests/quizzes based on the curriculum, arbitrarily assigned each question or portion of the project a point total, and then marked students work based on their “learning” demonstrated in each question/portion.  I would then tally the points and give them a total like 17/21.  This is how I was assessed in school and how most of the teachers around me at the time assessed student work.

In my 6th year of teaching, I was evaluated by my principal and during this, he asked me a question that changed my mindset on assessment. At the time, I was fond of my spreadsheets and all the marks that I had in them (I now look back and realized how I used spreadsheets to fool parents, students, and myself into thinking that assessment was objective).  There was a student in my math class that was failing and we were discussing my frustrations with her because she did well on tests and quizzes but never handed in any assignments (I was even marking homework at the time… ugh).  He asked me, “what are you assessing?”.  I responded proudly with my knowledge of the curricular outcomes and he challenged me by saying, “do you think that you are adding to other aspects of your class to the assessment?” and he continued to ask, “are you assessing tasks or assessing the outcomes?”.  I stopped and had no response. I was failing a student who knew many of the learning outcomes… simply because she did not hand in or complete all of her work.  She actually had learned something in my class and I failed to acknowledge this. The marking system I used was great for putting into a computerized grade book to come up with a percentage but I had very little knowledge of which outcomes the students had learned and which they struggled.  This system also provided me with very little feedback on my teaching. The dialogue between my principal and I continued but from that point on, I started planning the assignments and summative assessments not based on tasks, but with the learning outcomes in mind.

As I moved into vice principalship and life in an intermediate classroom (grades 5 and 6), I continued to plan with the outcomes in mind.  Assignments, projects and quizzes were based on the learning outcomes.  Each section was an assessment of an outcome.  My spreadsheet shifted from arbitrary points on assignments and randomly weighted tasks to how each child was assessed on the learning outcomes.  By planning my assessments with outcomes in mind, I found I marked WAY less and had a better understanding of where my students were at in their learning.  Check out a good video from Rick Wormeli on grade books at the bottom of this post.

There is so much more to be discussed about effective summative assessment practices (standards, late marks, zeros, bonus marks, redos, assessment types, grading consistency as well as assessing effort, etc…) but I really believe that an important question to start with is:

Are we marking assignments or are we assessing LEARNING?

What do we need to do right now to start to make this shift in our schools?  How are you making this shift?

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