CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
What Does an Engaging Assessment Look Like?
After my younger brother did his first grade screening test in the late eighties, my mother was a little shocked to learn they were recommending him for Readiness and not Grade 1. The reason? He did not know his colors. A little perturbed, she asked him why they would say that. He knew all his colors for sure, and how to count, and the alphabet. His answer to her was something like, "They asked me stupid questions, I gave stupid answers." My brother has always been a little precocious in this way, but his attitude about his assessors is an important lesson. An assessment is only valid if a learner is willing to show us what they know and can do.
One element of a quality task is engagement. In the design process, we ask teachers to think carefully about this element. In a Quality Performance Assessment System, we are thinking about multiple performance assessments that are working together to ensure learners have sufficient opportunities to practice and demonstrate skills and knowledge. When assessments are not engaging, this can limit the amount of valid evidence we have to give our best feedback to parents and learners.
So what does an engaging assessment look like? This is a really hard question to answer because each individual learner has different likes, dislikes and personalities. Does this mean you have to create different assessments for each learner? No, but here are some tips in designing.
Communicate the Why
Assessments should be relevant to learners' lives now, but they also hold possibility in helping learners explore the world. How will completing the assessment help them in practicing their thoughts and values in a new context or scenario? How will the assessment allow them to understand how others walk in the world?
I do not know what the purpose of life is, but I believe joy has something to do with it. A lot of times we talk about authentic assessments, but we forget about play. Play is absolutely authentic and we should not be afraid to have fun when engaging in rigorous assessments. They are not mutually exclusive ideas. You might ask yourself if you would like to do the task yourself. If not, reconsider asking your students to do it. You might also consider if you are interested in assessing the evidence from a particular assessment. If not, you probably want to reconsider that too.
Sometimes curricula and learning targets are quite flexible, and sometimes they are not. In order for us to understand that a student can write, they have to write. Most US schools make a commitment to study the Constitution, so some social studies tasks will reflect that specific content. If you can give choices, you should give as many as possible while still getting the evidence of skills and knowledge you set out to assess. To demonstrate their ability to write effectively, can students have a choice about what they write about? To understand what a student knows about the Constitution, can you give them choice in how they demonstrate that knowledge?
My brother likely would have given the teachers the correct answers had he had a positive, established relationship with them. There are plenty of videos and strategies about how teachers get learners motivated to take standardized tests—tests that are joyless, inflexible, long and irrelevant. Relationships with teachers and pride in schools are key motivators in ensuring students are willing to show what they know on standardized tests, so how can your positive relationships help learners to meaningfully engage in the performance assessment?
Of course, there are a lot of other reasons why an assessment might be invalid. If students can't access assessments because there are barriers in language or in the way instructions are written, it's not a valid assessment of what they know and can do. If product requirements in an assessment limit the ability of a learner to express themselves in ways that are best for them, the assessment might be invalid. If we ask students to engage in an assessment that does not produce evidence of the skills and knowledge we hope to assess, there is a validity problem. The most important thing to remember is that education assessment is a human act. It will never be perfect or absolute, but we can create conditions where we can get the best evidence to help learners on their journey.