Assessment Isn’t A Bad Word

Earlier today on twitter, Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) launched a small thread on assessment.  You can check it out here. Essentially, he argues that testing doesn’t have to just mean an end of unit/chapter or course assessment and courses shouldn’t exist simply to focus on or teach to the test.  I completely agree.  

I believe assessment is unfairly judged in the current climate of education debate.  It is easy fodder for persecution because it is misunderstood and, because of this, is often mentioned with negative connotation by students, teachers, parents, and administration.  I’m honestly not sure how it happened, but assessment/testing has developed the perception of only meaning a final exam that determines with unmistakable finality the future of a student’s academic life.  And I believe I get it; some tests are quite important.  In the United States, the ACT and/or SAT play a major part in university selections.  Most colleges provide significant scholarships for students who obtain a certain score.  There’s some pressure there.  My students are quite driven by this scenario and, thus, often attend test preparatory classes.  Many parents hire tutors and the high school where I work even provides tutoring programs during lunch for students.  

But assessment isn’t just the ACT.  Assessment isn’t a bad word.  Our perception of assessment is the problem.  Instead of thinking of assessment as a test that is going to tell me how flawed I am, think of it as a measurement of where I am in the learning process.  If I’m studying theories of color vision and I simply believe I know it all because I either heard my teacher talk about it and I wrote some notes or I watched a video on the theories or any other strategy for learning information, but I never have to actually think with the information, I am probably mistaken and overconfident in my learning.    

I see this overconfidence all the time with my students.  It is quite difficult for high school students to understand what they know and what they don’t know and many have no idea how to assess this.  Think about it — How many times were you instructed, step by step, on how to assess your own learning?  Probably not very often or not at all.  It is not something we focus on in the classroom very much and is often assumed to be a skill our students intrinsically possess.  As a teacher, a little mantra I have for myself and my students is:

If the final test is the first time you have to effortfully interact with the material presented during the unit, we’re both probably going to fail.

Enter assessment.  I believe assessment should be a daily occurrence in the classroom.  Low-stakes assessment of learning allows students to quickly grasp their understanding of a particular concept.  I spoke about this recently at researchED, in Brooklyn.  Assessment can be any type of retrieval practice; from a few multiple-choice questions to open-ended essays.  These assessments can be used before, during, or at the end of the class.  They may test knowledge of information learned five minutes ago or weeks ago.  The most important aspects of this retrieval practice is:

  1. the students have to use their brain to produce answers demonstrating their knowledge.
  2. low-stakes assessment is used.  This can lower anxiety and make reluctant students more likely to genuinely participate.
  3. They are quick.  In ten minutes, I can ask my students about material from the previous class meeting in an open-ended essay and they can assess their learning and know the holes in their understanding.  Here is a quite detailed explanation of how I explicitly do this in my classroom.

So, why assess so often?

  1. In my opinion, the biggest reason is the metacognitive value of students being able to more correctly assess their learning.  They are no longer relying on how well the ‘feel’ they understand the material.  They have evidence of their understanding.
  2. This can lead to better study/practice habits.  Students want to study in an efficient manner.  I cannot think of a more time-effective manner of studying than this form of assessment.  It produces results.  If my students can see the fruits of their retrieving labor and apply this to their studies in college, I believe I’ve done my students a great service.  On a grand scale, my AP Psychology scores rose 7% from previous years after applying this daily retrieval practice in my classes last year.  If students know it works, they are more likely to do it.
  3. With regular practice, students become better at answering questions.  They better understand how to eliminate incorrect answers and more correctly construct essays.
  4. Regular retrieval practice also relieves some test anxiety.  If students are answering questions daily that resemble their end-of-unit assessments, they become more comfortable with the idea of being assessed and getting a question or two wrong is no longer as big a deal.  I work with my students to shift the perception from ‘I got this wrong and  I failed’ to ‘Ok.  I now know what I don’t know so I know what exactly to study.’  That is huge.

As Tom Bennett wrote in his twitter thread, assessment should be “an intrinsic part of all teaching and learning.”  Its perception as the big, bad wolf of education is simply not fair due to its stereotyped generalization.  Those who wish to ‘ditch’ assessment are really doing our students a disservice.  In my opinion, schools and teachers should work to change the perception of assessment and provide opportunities frequently for assessment.  In doing this, we are creating students who are more likely to embrace its positive values while also lowering anxiety and creating a better environment for learning.  

4 thoughts on “Assessment Isn’t A Bad Word

  1. Pingback: Assessment, Imagination Science, and more in this week's news roundup! - Psych Learning Curve

  2. Howard

    I agree that assessment is not a bad word, but your suggestions still have the appearance of assessment driving pedagogy. In terms of current requirements this may be an appropriate response, but I do want to strive for more; for a new model of assessment supporting pedagogy, not leading it.
    “From a Singerian perspective, educational assessment is therefore a process of modeling human performance and capability. The important point about the modeling metaphor is that models are never right or wrong, merely more or less appropriate for a particular purpose” (William, 94, )
    I recently read this about Agnes Hocking and progressive education at the 1915 founding of the Shady Hill School.
    “The Hockings objected to what they called the “yielding morass of progressivism”, . . Education was not about satisfying the interests that children already had, but awakening them to the possibilities of pursuing broader and more meaningful ones. In the words of Mary Williams, one of its former students, the lessons at Shady Hill were over our heads at all times. But within our reach”.(Kaag, 2016, American Philosophy, A Love Story)
    This is a good representation, not only of progressive education but also of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. But it can’t easily be adapted to standardized testing which can not lead but only present a binary choice; right or wrong. The excuse of objectivity is insufficient in when compared to what is needed in education going forward. Assessment needs to reflect the life of teaching, not a narrow positivist vision.
    “. . . focusing their attention on tiny questions that could be answered with utmost clarity in their (mathematically modeled) logic, the analytic philosophers ignored every aspect of life that was inexpressible in their logic”. (Sowa, 2006,
    Education should not support the needs of assessment; assessment should support the educational needs of teachers using the most advanced pedagogy.


  3. Pingback: Assessment is an ongoing process. Absolutely… | Driffield School and Sixth Form Teaching and Learning Blog

  4. Pingback: Homework Isn’t A Bad Word – The Effortful Educator

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